I was perhaps seventeen years old when a high school chemistry teacher told me “Paulo, you think like an engineer!” I wasn’t fully aware of what she meant by that and I didn’t expect it to shape my future and my life forever. She was referring to the way I would normally solve problems in class; I wouldn’t always follow the laid out path to the solution and I would often come up with inventive ways to get there.
Looking further back, I have always wanted to understand how things work. I grew up in a house that had a big garden at the back where my dad would grow vegetables as a hobby. As a child, I remember using pumpkin stems to move water from one bucket to another.
In my early teens, I would love it when a remote controlled toy broke down or stopped working so that I could open it and take out the engine. I would use it to build my own moving structures with LEGO bricks. This was the start of my interest in engineering, I just didn’t know it then.
Through school, I had always preferred sciences and maths and I eventually took my teacher’s advice and studied Chemical Engineering. I went on to study for a PhD in Fluid Dynamics where I used Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) to understand how fluids could be mixed together in a micro-reactor in an optimal manner.
This allowed me to look at the efficiency of fast chemical reactions, based on the amount of time two different reacting ingredients were in contact with each other. Together with my supervisors, we used the results to produce nano-sized hydroxyapatite, the main material found in bone. Outside the body, hydroxyapatite has medical and oral care applications, however it is expensive to produce. Current methods to produce the material result in grains of varying size, which must then be separated. This is both complicated and costly. Our technology allowed us to control the mixing and the time the two reactants were in contact with each other, and tailor the size of the nano-particles produced.
By removing the tricky separation process from the production, we could obtain a high quality product at a very competitive price. Our technology was so successful, that with the help of venture capital, we built a factory from scratch and turned our idea into a business. The factory is still operating today and supplying the material to the healthcare industry!
After university I spent a couple of years in process consulting, using mathematical models, computer programs and experimental set-ups to explore how fluids behave in different conditions. I worked on projects that looked at flow in chemical reactors; studied solids moving in liquid suspensions throughout pipes and channels; and simulated liquids flowing in different conditions of pressure and temperature. The industries I worked with were also quite varied, from food to pharmaceutical, to oil and gas.
It was the scale of oil and gas projects that really got me curious. I currently work at BP in London, where I am part of the Upstream Technology Wells team. A big portion of my work sees me developing and testing computational tools to predict how fluids behave during drilling operations. There are a lot more fluids involved in oil & gas industry than just oil and gas. For example, cement slurry has a crucial part to play.
After drilling the wellbore to the target depth, the drill bit is removed and a structural metallic tube, called casing, is inserted into the well. Next, the gap between the casing and the rock walls of the well must be filled with cement. This provides support, prevents corrosion, and seals off and protects both the rock and the well. Cementing is key to the process, and contributes to safety throughout the life of the well.
The biggest challenge comes in ensuring the thick cement slurry, is efficiently pumped into the narrow gap between the casing and well walls, and reaches the correct depth. As there are no sensors in the wellbore at this stage, only simulation tools can predict what is happening down there.
My team and I also focus on adapting these fluid models to process data in real time. This gives teams in the field a better understanding of what is happening in the wells, allowing them to make informed decisions on the fly. As I am also involved in deploying these tools globally, I get to travel around the world, sometimes even offshore to rigs in the North Sea, Egypt or Azerbaijan. It is very rewarding to see the models I helped develop being applied to make the industry safer and more efficient.
The scale I work at now is a long way from those childhood set-ups, but the desire to understand how things work and add value by solving problems in a novel way is still very present. This is why engineering is so inspiring!