Great Ideas on Energy: Automated Drilling, Government Support, Cooling Down Supercomputers

A century ago, The University of Texas was built on energy. Some sources may have changed, but as these brilliant innovations prove, UT is still charging ahead.

17.  Use automation to improve drilling efficiency and safety.

For 20 years, Eric van Oort worked at companies like Shell, seeing the struggle of oil and gas companies to meet their safety goal of zero people hurt on the job. Now a UT petroleum engineering professor, van Oort saw a solution: automate drilling.

“Drilling is potentially dangerous, with rig staff and heavy machinery operating in the same tight space,” he says. “So why not let machines do the hazardous work?”

On its face, automation for safety isn’t a new idea. Airplanes have autopilot; cars have airbags. Now van Oort is on a mission to help oil and gas catch up.

As the industry works overtime to ensure that a disaster like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill never happens again, automation is crucial. Algorithms can detect changes in rig data consistently and quickly—preventing problems early.

There’s also a pressing challenge to drill more efficiently. The low price of natural gas, says van Oort, pushes operators to be more efficient. Automating best practices can help reduce waste and improve speed.

Van Oort is cautious but confident. “The oil industry is known for being conservative, but it’s changing rapidly, and for the better,” he says. “This is the future.” —Rose Cahalan

18.  Government is key to innovating.

With countries like China arranging economic transformations, the U.S. can’t let ideological differences interfere with our ability to innovate, a UT researcher argues.

Yes, many modern innovations have come via private firms, LBJ School of Public Affairs professor Varun Rai acknowledges. “However,” he adds, “many of the most profound innovations have come from government supported R&D.”

Case in point: horizontal drilling, an innovation central to the U.S. shale gas boom, was made possible by government funding. And key to horizontal drilling is GPS, which came about through the U.S. Defense Department.

Rai has found that between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. share of the global production of solar power cells slipped from 30 to 7 percent, while the share produced in China grew from 2 to 54 percent—thanks largely to well-coordinated policies, he says. Yet a large proportion of innovations in solar technologies in the past 30 years have originated in the U.S.

“Clearly, innovation for its own sake is not sufficient,” Rai says. “Government policies must exist to help translate those innovations into economic prosperity.”

Rai’s research on innovation and diffusion of technologies has been published in Newsweek International, Energy Policy, and beyond. Now let’s hope legislators get the message. —Kerri Battles

19.  Cool down supercomputers with mineral oil.

Computers and liquids don’t mix. So why is UT’s Texas Advanced Computing Center dunking servers in oil?

Supercomputers are prone to overheating and require intense A/C. But air does a better job trapping heat than transferring it, and as processing power climbs, so does temperature. Some supercomputers can rise to 150 degrees. “It’s getting to the point that we’ve got so much power in such a small space that we can’t use air,” says Tommy Minyard, director of advanced computing systems.

So startup Green Revolution Cooling came up with another approach. In 2010, cofounders Christiaan Best, BS ’02, MS ’05, and Mark Tlapak, BBA, MPA ’00, proposed a collaboration: funded by the National Science Foundation, Green Revolution would test its prototype cooling system, CarnotJet, which submerges computers in medical- grade mineral oil. After the servers’ fans are removed and hard drives sealed, they’re lowered into tanks filled with circulating oil. That heat transfers to a heat exchanger or outdoor air. Minyard was skeptical but agreed to try.

The result: cool computers and big savings. “We have to put about 35-40 percent more power into the data center to run all the cooling equipment,” Minyard says. With Green Revolution hardware, “we’re talking only 1 or 2 percent.” The project got the attention of the Uptime Institute, which made the UT collaborators finalists in its 2012 Green Enterprise IT Awards.

It’s catching on: Green Revolution has more than 12 installations in the U.S., Europe, and Japan.

One downside: When servers need fixing, they must be powered down, then removed dripping oil. “It’s actually kind of a hand-softener,“ Minyard laughs. —Jenny Blair

Read the next great ideas on energy here.

A computer server in mineral oil. Photo courtesy the Texas Advanced Computing Center.


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