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Zhu-Ming Around the Globe

By Kara Bounds Socol

SPE distinguished lecturer and Texas A&M professor takes her controversial message on a 22-stop tour

Ding Zhu knew well before leaving home that she wouldn't be the most beloved presenter on the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) lecture circuit. But she would generate some of the most controversial conversation.

Zhu, a Texas A&M associate professor and the W.D. Von Gonten Faculty Fellow in Petroleum Engineering, was one of more than 100 hopefuls for an SPE distinguished lecturer slot. After an SPE panel chose her abstract on inflow control devices (ICDs) for consideration, Zhu went through an intensive interview process and was one of the 30 selected to give lectures to SPE groups worldwide. She recently completed her 22-stop tour.

During her eight years at Texas A&M, Zhu has focused her research on using modern technology to increase oil and gas production.

Zhu's audiences varied from seven people in Hobbs, N.M., to some 250 in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Although some stops were somewhat close to home, others were as far away as Melbourne, Australia, and as remote as Balikpapan, Indonesia.

As Zhu has spoken to SPE groups around the globe, she's found that hostility toward the subject of her presentation is a worldwide phenomenon.

"Some people shut down when they hear the letters 'ICD,'" Zhu says of the device's detractors. "They just think you're trying to sell them something that doesn't work. They don't actually look at the principle of how it works."

But for the most part, audience members were willing to hear what she had to say. 

"In the majority of the cities, there was hot discussion," Zhu says. "But they thanked me for the discussion at the end and said they really understood ICDs more."

So why the fuss over ICDs? 

Some producers see an ICD as a magical guarantee for increased production.

Others will say they're extremely expensive, difficult to install and maintain, and fail to encourage oil flow. In short, when they invested in the device, they felt like they were duped.

On both counts, Zhu disagrees.

Dr. Ding Zhu

Understanding ICDs

An ICD is an intelligent completion hardware designed to maximize oil recovery in long horizontal wells. Oil flowing too quickly or too slowly from the reservoir to the well has a negative impact on recovery. An ICD regulates that flow rate.

The ICD also adds to the producing life of the well by preventing "coning"—the penetration of water or gas into the oil column during uncontrolled production. 

But for ICDs to work, Zhu says, they must be used only under the right conditions. These include either a very long horizontal well with a great deal of oil or very thin oil reservoirs with a gas cap on top and a water aquifer underneath. If the well is too short, she explains, the ICD will not perform as promised.

"The catch is for people to understand exactly when you can use an ICD to help you," she explains.

And she should know. During her eight years at Texas A&M, Zhu has focused her research on using modern technology to increase oil and gas production. This research encompasses techniques to access shale gas and oil, specialized methods required for heavy oil, and improved procedures to access "tight gas"—natural gas reservoirs locked in extremely hard rock.

Zhu has developed several computer software applications for intelligent control of wells—using computer sensors to improve production. Classrooms and oil fields all over the world use PPS, a production engineering software package she developed.

A Promising Future

When Zhu announced her selection as a distinguished lecturer, a friend warned that by presenting her abstract, she'd be making enemies of the major oil companies. But Zhu takes a different approach: "If I'm wrong, I'd like to hear why you think I'm wrong."

On the SPE tour, she got her wish. But instead of being offended by detractors, she found that the discussions her presentations started were one of the things she liked most about the lecture tour. She also says she enjoyed getting to know SPE members from around the globe and was encouraged by the enthusiasm of many of the younger members.

In Balikpapan, for instance, most attendees had been in the oil industry for five years or less. 

"They really want to connect with SPE," Zhu says. "We had a lot of discussion about how young people in the industry should look at the future."

She had a similar experience in Colombia, where about 30 students traveled by bus to a remote location to attend the SPE event and then stayed two hours after her presentation.

"Colombian young people are very aggressive, in a good way," Zhu says. "They love their society, they're technically involved, they want to help their people. When I look at them, I think their country is going to have a good future because they love it so much."

She felt similar feelings of promise when speaking to groups in other remote corners of the globe. 

"You hear people speaking all kinds of languages, and they're all looking for something better—not just for themselves but for their whole society," Zhu says. "I'd think, 'I'm so proud to be with this group of people.'"

A Big Milestone

The travel schedule of an SPE distinguished lecturer is grueling enough, but because of her teaching schedule, Zhu had to cram a year's worth of stops into six months. Her sightseeing opportunities, then, were extremely limited. 

"You hear people speaking all kinds of languages, and they're all looking for something better—not just for themselves but for their whole society. I'd think, 'I'm so proud to be with this group of people.'"

During the Asian portion of her tour, Zhu visited China, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Australia in two and a half weeks. Even worse was hitting Alaska, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston in four days.

"There were times when I got up, went to the talk, then went directly to the airport," she says. 

For her presentation in London, for instance, she arrived at the airport at 1 p.m., attended the SPE event from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., and then took the first flight back the following morning to teach her class at Texas A&M.

Constant travel, sleep deprivation, time away from family—these were all downsides to Zhu's six-month tour. Ultimately, though, the people she met and the honor of being singled out by SPE outweighed the frustrations. 

"When you look back," she says, "you see that it's a big milestone in anyone's career." 

Dr. Ding Zhu
Dr. Ding Zhu, P.E
Associate Professor
W.D. Von Gonten Faculty Fellow
Petroleum Engineering