A few months ago, Norman residents on and around the University of Oklahoma North Campus were startled to see water gushing high into the air.
It was coming from a facility across the street from the YMCA and Optimist Club Hangar. Norman police responded to calls, only to discover it was a routine experiment.
Personnel at the Well Construction Technology Center — which falls under OU's Mewbourne School of Earth and Energy — notify authorities from now on when similar tests are being conducted. But that's only one of many things happening at the facility at 1160 Lexington Ave.
Ramadan Ahmed, associate professor of petroleum engineering, said just about any piece of equipment found on an oil field gets tested there. Primarily, the professors and graduate students there work on processes that can slow down oil and gas production — such as cement and tubular corrosion and maintenance — to try and make the process faster and more efficient.
"If we drill slow, we will never make a profit," Ahmed said.
Currently, one of the projects involves cleaning the tube used to pump water in and oil and gas out of wells. As the drilling progresses, the tube can become clogged with debris like rocks and mud.
So clean out fluid is used to flush the tube out so it can be used again. But this process takes time, and as has been established, time is money on the oil field.
A transparent tube connected to a pumping apparatus simulates how this can be done faster. The machine can be moved to different angles, enabling the technology center team to assess the process in both horizontal and vertical drilling.
"How can you optimally remove those rocks?" Soham Pandya, a graduate research assistant with a Ph.D. in petroleum engineering, said. "You have to clean the well as fast as you can."
Pandya said the work on this began about five years ago and it remains one of the primary projects ongoing at the technology center.
Water plays a big part in oil and gas drilling. It is, of course, used in fracking; but crews often bring up large amounts of it when extracting the oil.
Much of this water is useless for any other use, because it contains so much oil.
But nanoparticles can help, master's student Jared Theurer said.
"We are trying to remove any residual water components," he said. "When oil and gas comes up, a lot of water does, as well."
Other methods can be costly and take too much time, Theurer said. Magnetic nanoparticles can be suspended in the water, where they soak up even the smallest bits of oil.
The nanoparticles are then attracted by a magnet, taking the oil with them and leaving cleaner water behind. In lab tests at the technology center, Theurer said the process demonstrates 99 percent oil removal efficiency.
Ahmed said this process has taken the residual particles in well water down from 1,000 parts per million to as low as 2.1 parts per million. The threshold for companies to pump that water back into the ocean from offshore oil rigs is 29 parts per million.
The amount needed to put the water back on land is zero, so the process isn't quite to that point yet. But through continued work, it is hoped the water can be recycled for agricultural uses.
What's more, the nanoparticles can be recycled, Theurer said. Tests have shown they remain useful through at least 10 cycles.
Before all of these experiments and tests, students who come through the technology center spend time on the university's drillbotics team. It's a global competition similar to a high school robotics team, where students build a drilling apparatus and test it based on provided, mandatory guidelines.
"It is a fully functioning well," Savannah Drummond, who recently graduated with her bachelor's degree, said.
The machine itself was built five years ago and each new team comes in to make the necessary modifications for that year's competition. This year, the team had to drill at an angle.
The North American competition took place last month, while international legs will take place this summer. It is at that point that OU's drillbotics team will learn how well they did, but they're already off to a good start.
"We were the only team that finished the competition in North America," Drummond said.
The drill is fully automatic. Competitors have to make sure the machine responds to the commands given and drills at the necessary angle.
"The biggest challenge is to get it deviated at a certain angle," Emmanuel Akita, petroleum engineering graduate student said. "We have to get it to hit a specific target."
While it is competitive, Ahmed said drillbotics is designed to help students learn. The drive for success is what gets them there.
"You create that motivation and then use that for learning," he said.
Once each team is done, they send their results in to be judged against each other by competition officials. And much like in the real world of oil and gas drilling, the result is judged by what's underneath.
"The rock is going to tell the story," Ahmed said.