When COVID-19 hit, Collin Herndon, a senior majoring in petroleum and natural gas engineering, watched as his summer internship prospects quickly plummeted.
Gone were the hopes of in-person experiences. Energy companies, too, were jolted by record declines in energy prices.
But thanks to swift action by leaders in the John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering (EME) and several industry partners, things quickly turned around.
Herndon instead spent his summer working for Berry Petroleum assessing the secondary extraction viability for a well in the Uinta Basin in Utah. He worked closely with Hamid Emami-Meybodi, assistant professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering, and Penn State alum Manik Singh, reservoir engineer at Berry Petroleum.
He was one of twenty-five students who took advantage of one of many virtual experiences created and funded through EME and open to all majors within the department.
Herndon created a numerical model that looked at several geological factors such as permeability and rock fractures. Analyzing the results, he found that the production of Berry Petroleum’s wells—now in the primary phase of oil extraction—would increase during secondary extraction through the help of cyclic steam injection.
Berry Petroleum said his findings will prompt them to conduct more field tests. Traditionally, wells that increase production through fracturing are thought of as prime candidates for secondary oil extraction.
“This experience has been pretty great because I’ve been able to accomplish things that I didn’t even know where possible,” Herndon said. “I had never worked with the software I was using. I wasn’t sure that this could even be done like this remotely and that was actually pretty impressive.”
Things turned out so well for Herndon that he was asked by Berry to expand the internship with additional hours and continue during the fall semester.
“I want to stay involved with the company and my industry and faculty mentors so that we can get the best results possible,” Herndon said. “I’d love to see the benefits of the work I’ve been doing all summer.”
Creating the experience
This is the kind of experience that Sanjay Srinivasan, head of EME, hoped for when he worked with colleagues and industry leaders to create the internship program. That’s something he started while teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. There, he saw how the internship program aided students and promoted industry connections. He watched it grow from a handful of internships to about thirty, buoyed by a $5 million endowment from an alum.
A global pandemic—and requests from faculty members—just pushed up his timeline.
“I wanted to do this, and also expressed to the companies that we are really doing it also to support them, too, because they’re also reeling from this pandemic,” Srinivasan said. “We want industry leaders to stay engaged with our students. One of the useful things about the internships is that it allows the companies to assess different students and see who might be the best fit for their organization. And that’s a relationship that can only be created through professional interactions.”
Srinivasan, who entered the workforce during another period of tumultuous times in the energy sector, said it’s important for students to make these connections and to diversify their skills while at Penn State.
“Our students learn early on that it’s important to diversify,” Srinivasan said. “They find work at Wall Street companies. They find work in environmental consulting companies. They find work in general engineering contractor companies. I think this is true about all professions and more true about ours. We need to make sure that our students get out with a broad set of skills that can be applicable to many areas, not just one area.”
Energy companies, too, are diversifying. And Ariadna Walsh, a senior majoring in energy engineering, was part of that transition. She worked with Athanasios Karamalidis, assistant professor of environmental systems engineering, and Schlumberger to look at how rare earth elements (REE) can be extracted from waste more efficiently.
These elements are essential for a range of electronics and other applications and can be harmful, so removing them from waste is a win-win.
Walsh pored over research articles and consulted with Karamalidis on his membrane separation techniques to help guide Schlumberger on how best to improve REE extraction.
“We looked at a lot of different techniques and using membranes—particularly polymer inclusion membranes—greatly enhances the process,” Walsh said “But that’s at research scale. We need to look at sizing these techniques up to industrial scale while also improving the stability of liquid membranes.”
Isaac Ciprich, a senior majoring in petroleum and natural gas engineering, also found a chance to fine-tune his engineering skills.
He worked with Berry Petroleum—and well data he originally explored in the classroom—to look at improving oil extraction. Ciprich met virtually with Luis Ayala, William A. Fustos Family Professor in EME, Kristy Whitaker, earth sciences technical manager at Berry Petroleum, and Singh.
Ciprich used industry software to explore the well production for the next five years for a reservoir in Bakersfield, California. He fed data into his model and when the data wasn’t available, he calculated estimates for it using similar wells.
Because each well is different, Ciprich said, the approach relies on a lot of human input. The process gave him a chance to explore the research side of things as he fine-tunes his career ambitions.
“I was really grateful for this research internship because it gave me experiences with the various software programs companies use,” Ciprich said. And it didn’t seem like a job. It seemed more like a learning experience with tools that I’ll most likely be using in my career.”
Future engineers adapt
Students praised faculty and industry leaders for establishing such relevant and insightful opportunities so quickly.
For some, the change of plans amounted to a chance to explore an area they hadn’t planned on. It tested their ability to adapt, to diversify, and even to see how their work makes a difference.
“What sold me on this career is that you’re able to turn research and data into an actual product,” Herndon said. “We’re turning data into fuel that can be used to heat homes, drive cars, and countless other things because the uses for oil are so vast.”