Becoming a Technology Fellow, Starting With the Undergraduate Project
Satya Gupta, a technology fellow at Baker Hughes, shares the milestones of his career in the industry.
Below is an edited transcript of an interview conducted with him as part of the Oral History project during the ATCE held in Houston last year. In the interview, Gupta shares his journey in the industry, from his undergraduate days in India to becoming a technology fellow at Baker Hughes; his contributions to the industry and the personal satisfaction he felt in return; and the role of SPE and mentors in his career. Full version of the interview and the audio file are available here.
Interviewee: Satya Gupta
Interviewer: Amy Esdorn
Date: September 28, 2015
Place: Houston, Texas
My name is Amy Esdorn and I’m here at the Society of Petroleum Engineers Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas. Today is September 28th, 2015 and I’m speaking with Satya Gupta. Mr. Gupta, thank you for participating in this interview. My first question for you is, what was your first job in the industry and when did you get into the industry?
After I got my PhD, I got into a research position with Gulf in New Orleans, doing research in corrosion and coatings and things like that. That’s how I got into the industry.
When was that?
What was the industry like at that time?
Well, it was much smaller than it is now and it was even ’78, we had a mini, I guess crash, and then we were just coming out of it. There’s a lot of activity in the Gulf Coast. They had a research center in New Orleans and so that’s where I started my research career in a way.
What were you researching?
Again, I was doing work in high temperature hydrogen sulfide corrosion and coatings.
What do you do now?
I’m a Baker Hughes Technology Fellow. We are about five of us, we report to the chief technology officer of the company and we advise the company on technology direction for the company and things of that nature.
How did you get from researching to your present career right now?
As everybody knows, this industry has gone up and down. So from Gulf, I went to Pennzoil, changed a little bit, worked in the area of automotive specialties and then joined the Western Company, which is really a service company and then established R&D. Then BJ Services bought Western, so I moved to Calgary to work for Fracmaster to set up and run the R&D there. And BJ again bought us, so after spending 7 years in Calgary, I moved to the Corporate R&D Center in Tomball, a suburb of Houston, and Baker Hughes bought us. So at least, I have gone through several mergers up and down. But overall, I’ve worked in the pressure pumping area, fracturing area, which is the hot area now and R&D management and then earlier this year, I was nominated and selected as a Baker Hughes Technology Fellow.
In 1978, you said it was a little bit of a tight economy there for the oil and gas business. What was it like trying to get into the industry at that time?
It was little—I mean, it’s just not the industry. The whole economy was not doing very well. Those who have the [credit] cards arrears with 20% interest rates and things of that nature, and especially, I was a foreign student. I didn’t have permanent residency, so it was difficult. But on the other hand, just like now, people always look for somebody with some specialized knowledge and education, so it was a little difficult but not all that difficult.
Where did you get your PhD?
In Washington University in Saint Louis in chemical engineering.
How did you sort of get all the way over to Saint Louis?
It’s interesting. I did my undergraduate in India and I had done an undergraduate project and the professor at WashU saw a paper I had published with my professor in India and so he sent—essentially, those days, it was before emails—a letter saying would I be interested in a graduate school. I said, “Yeah. If he could pay my way, I would be.” And so, that’s how it worked out. They gave me an assistantship. He even paid for me to get over here, and the rest is history.
That’s a great story. In all of your career since 1978, what has been the most rewarding or exciting part of working in the industry for you?
Well, especially for a technology person, there are so many challenges, so it’s been lots of fun solving lots of problems. I have over 150 patents, so I at least contributed some to the industry and some of it has made money for the companies I worked for, and it has solved problems for the industry. So at the end of the day, I feel I have contributed something to the industry and I had a lot of personal satisfaction solving problems.
What were some of those problems that you solved, some of those challenges that you faced?
It’s all the way from—I mean, a lot of people think hydraulic fracturing, it’s been in the news recently, it’s something new. We’ve been doing it for a long, long time, so original—I mean, when I started in the ’80s, it was tight gas, tight oil, and now, it is unconventionals. Some other things I worked on, is using encapsulations or microencapsulations for controlled release of chemicals, breakers for fracturing fluids. I have done a lot of work in the area of using less water. Actually, I just completed as an SPE Distinguished Lecturer going around the world, talking about how to frac with little or no water. Those are some of the things, fracturing with foams, fracturing with liquid CO2 where you don’t have to use water. Some of those is what I have worked on.
Which of your patents were the most rewarding when you worked on them?
Quite a few of them. I mean, sometimes [when] solving problems you borrow what you observe every day and then apply it to solve some of the challenges. One of the things I can mention is we have a product line where we introduced production chemicals in fracturing treatments. The concept came from looking at cat litter. Cat litter, when the cat does its business. The cat litter which is diatomaceous, absorbs it so much so you don’t see or smell the liquid anymore. So I used that concept to absorb production chemicals, corrosion inhibitors, scale inhibitors, asphalt inhibitors, paraffin and get those into a solid matrix that we can pump along with the fracture treatment. It stays underground in the frac treatment. When the well starts producing and has scale problems or paraffin problems, some of the SPE papers show case histories where some of it [treatment] has lasted for over 5 years. It’s a simple concept but it has solved the problems so you don’t have to do interventions, you don’t have to chemically have a treating program to solve some of the production problems you have in the industry.
And all because of cat litter.
It’s all cat litter.
Do you have any other patents that you particularly enjoyed working on?
As I mentioned, I’ve done a lot of work. Again, in fracturing treatments and all these. We are doing multistage all the way to 50. Today, if somebody was saying we are doing hundred stages and each stage we are putting about 300,000 gallons of water, water is a precious resource. … [I]f you can do it with little or no water, it’s better for both the environment as well as we’re not recovering a lot of this water. So some of the things I have done is fracturing with liquid CO2 or fracturing with foams where I’m using only 70% less water or fracturing with seawater. Some of those, if not today, in the future, when availability of water becomes an issue, will have an impact on the industry.
Which of those do you think holds the most promise?
It depends where you are. I mean, there is a lot of interest in tight gas, tight oil, and unconventionals in the Middle East for example, and we don’t have any water there, but if you’re close to the sea, you have lot of seawater, so it has an impact there. In North America, as an industry, we produce six, seven barrels of water per barrel of oil or oil equivalent. So there’s lot of produced water that we need to find a way to dispose of, rather than disposing it off, if you can find the way to use it for fracturing, there’s lot of potential. I see fracturing is not going to disappear. Hydrocarbons are not going to disappear, so if we can do it with little or no fresh water, at least in the medium term, I see that having a lot of impact.
Which technological innovations do you think have had the most important impact on the industry in the last 60 years?
The two, without a doubt, is horizontal drilling and multistage fracturing. That has what has created the abundance of oil and gas, at least in North America today.
What does it feel like to be a part of something that’s really had such a significant impact on the industry and on the world?
It’s more than industry, it’s on the world. I mean, we need energy and we need safe—not only safe but affordable energy, and so, the technology I worked on, at least hydraulic fracturing, has been one of the major contributors for it. So the end of the day, I feel very proud that I have worked in the industry, at least on that aspect.
When you went into industry, did you think that you would be contributing in such a way or to the world or did you foresee this happening?
Well, things were different. I mean, when I started, it was a job then it became a profession and then it became—it all works out in the end, I guess, that’s the way to say it. No, I didn’t plan on contributing to the world, but that’s how it works out.
Well, I have one more question for you and that question is how has being a member of SPE affected your career?
Quite a bit. I mean, without SPE and the technical resources available—I’ve learned a lot, interacting with other SPE members and in the technology area. OnePetro, or before that I did the SPE technical papers, has contributed a lot so you don’t reinvent the wheel. Also, from the beginning, I’ve been attending the annual meetings, the forums, the workshops and a lot of people—I mean, lot of mentors for me have come from the SPE members and also, hopefully, I’ve contributed some to SPE. So I don’t think I would have been as successful as I’ve been without being a member of SPE.
You mentioned mentors there. I wonder, how did you get involved or how did you meet those mentors and how did those relationships evolve?
When I started working in the area of hydraulic fracturing, I didn’t know much about it. I mean, I was more of a chemical engineer, a physical chemistry person. The fluids, the chemistry is just part of it. That has a lot to do with completions and all that. … When I started working at Western, I had Harry Harrington who won one of the Legends of Hydraulic Fracturing Award a few years ago. He was the completions guy and I was the chemistry guy, and I learned a lot from him and hopefully, I taught my little bit of chemistry. But it was a very small community, and even today, hydraulic fracturing community is very small. That’s how it started and then I started attending some forums and started learning more about hydraulic fracturing. Then, so they mentored me into areas I didn’t know anything about, so a lot to do with interdependence of various disciplines.