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Ken Nolen
Former mechanical engineering student Ken Nolen '57 was recently inducted into the Petroleum Hall of Fame. | Image: Courtesy of Ken Nolen

Texas is riddled with small towns that are home to big, world-changing names. Eagle Lake is one of these towns. With a population of just over 3,000, its pride lies in its flat acres of land perfectly suited for agriculture production. Ken Nolen ’57 spent many hot, humid summers of his childhood on a rice farm in that small town, but he didn’t stay there for long. As an adult, he focused on a different type of production — oil. His contributions to the Permian Basin are significant, leading to his recent induction into the Petroleum Hall of Fame.

Pathway to the Permian

“I was born with a wrench in my hand,” Nolen said. “I learned at an early age how to work on farm equipment and was always interested in the mechanics behind how they worked.”

His childhood interests persisted through high school and led him straight up the highway to College Station, Texas.

“I decided to attend Texas A&M University because of its name at the time — Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas — the two fields I was most passionate about,” Nolen said.

Ken Nolen in his Corps of Cadets senior uniform.
As a student, Nolen was active in the Corps of Cadets. | Image: Courtesy of Ken Nolen

Like every Aggie enrolled at Texas A&M before participation in the Corps of Cadets became voluntary in 1965, Nolen balanced the rigors of academics with the structured duties of the cadet life. He showed discipline in both of these areas, earning a degree from the J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Mechanical Engineering and participating as a member of the Ross Volunteers.

“Attending a college with a military background was beneficial to me,” Nolen said. “The discipline and comradery were huge influences in my career, and I treasured the ability to later serve my country as a member of the U.S. Air Force.”

During the summer between his junior and senior year, Nolen attended boot camp with the Corps of Cadets at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona. During this trip, he made his first visit to the Permian Basin.

“Driving through, I swore to my friends I would never live in such a flat, dusty place,” Nolen said. “It’s funny how life works — I’ve lived in Midland, Texas, for more than 50 years. I raised my family and made lifelong friends there, and I’m lucky to call it home.”

Optimizing innovation

Nolen began his career with Shell Oil Company as a production engineer. As his experience grew, he narrowed his focus on optimizing production in oil wells through artificial lifts.

Ken Nolen working on artificial lift equipment.
Nolen continues to be active in the oil industry. | Image: Courtesy of Ken Nolen

“Texas A&M gave me the educational tools I needed to expand and take advantage of my mechanical skills in the oil industry,” Nolen said. “Much of what I do is a maze of mechanical ingenuity, which fits my passions and abilities perfectly.”

In 1970, he worked with his former classmate Dr. Sam Gibbs ’54 to launch Nabla Corporation. The company produced and sold well-site diagnostic equipment and hydraulic and submersible pump systems, which Nolen co-developed with Gibbs.

“Being able to team up with a genius like Dr. Sam Gibbs was a real blessing,” Nolen said. “Sam excelled in using his mathematical background to model artificial lift equipment. We had a professional partnership and personal friendship that lasted most of our adult lives until Sam passed in 2019.”

KEN Well Manager (KWM).
WellWorx recently patented and commercially launched the KEN Well Manager (KWM) in honor of Nolen. The KWM is a controller that sits on a well site and sends data to the operator via a cloud-based user interface. It is designed to pair with the GreenShot, patented by Nolen and Gibbs. | Image: Courtesy of Ken Nolen

Nolen retired in 2002 but remained active in the industry as an artificial lift consultant. He lent his skill and knowledge to many across the world as the author of several technical school textbooks and dozens of technical papers in his area of expertise. He holds eight patents, with one in progress for a spiral tool for gas separation, and over the years, he has taught at more than 200 organizations about artificial lift.

As an innovator and engineering entrepreneur by nature, Nolen’s retirement didn’t last long — in 2014, he joined forces with Gibbs once again to form GreenShot LLC, which specialized in oil well fluid-level automation. GreenShot was acquired by WellWorx Energy four years later, and Nolen remains with the company as a research and development advisor.

The Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas, is dedicated to preserving the history of the Permian Basin and honoring its greatest contributors. As one of only four individuals selected for the 2023 induction, Nolen’s spot in the museum’s Petroleum Hall of Fame is a reflection of the impact of his career not only as a former student of Texas A&M’s College of Engineering, but in the petroleum industry as a whole.