Francisco “Paco” Vargas
is too modest to come out and say it but he and his research group probably form the world’s epicenter for the study of asphaltene deposition.
What, you ask, is that, and why do we care? Asphaltene is a complex of hydrocarbon molecules naturally occurring in crude oil, a byproduct of the same geological processes that turn fossils into fossil fuel. The viscosity of crude oil increases with the amount of asphaltene present. It can accumulate in wellbores and production facilities, and interrupt oil production. Asphaltene is called the “cholesterol” of the oil industry.
“We have developed the knowledge and tools to diagnose, forecast and mitigate the problem, which is becoming more important all the time. Asphaltene deposition results in downtime and that means deferred production and expensive remediation strategies,” said Vargas, the Louis Owen Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ChBE) at Rice University.
Because oil companies are moving to enhanced oil recovery operations and producing from deeper reservoirs, as in the Gulf of Mexico, changes in temperature, pressure and composition can make the asphaltene deposition problem more severe.
Vargas and Mohammad Tavakkoli have edited a collection of essays written entirely by current or former Rice faculty, staff and students: Asphaltene Deposition: Fundamentals, Prediction, Prevention, and Remediation. The book was published by CRC Press, and Vargas and Tavakkoli were honored at a Friends of Fondren Library Celebration on Jan. 30. In their introduction to the book, Tavakkoli and Vargas write:
“The U.S. Energy Information Administration (2016) predicts that the world energy consumption would grow by 56% between 2010 and 2040. Because we are running out of the easy oil, the petroleum industry faces the need to produce oil and gas in unconventional ways and complex conditions, deep waters, and difficult-to-access formations.”
Tavakkoli earned his Ph.D. in petroleum engineering from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran in 2013. His thesis was titled “Asphaltene Deposition Modeling in Oil Wells and Pipelines.” He came to Rice as a postdoctoral research associate in the Vargas lab, and now is a lecturer in ChBE.
“It could be used as a textbook,” Vargas said, “but it’s a very specific subject. It might be used in more general classes. Call it textbook-like.”
The book is based on the modeling and experimental research conducted in Vargas’ lab. Its members include 14 graduate students, three postdocs, thirteen undergraduates and a high-school student.
Vargas earned his Ph.D. from Rice in chemical engineering in 2009 and joined the Rice faculty in 2013. For three years prior to that, Vargas worked as an assistant professor at the Petroleum Institute, and as a manager of flow assurance in the research and development program at the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., both in Abu Dhabi.
“The book was really a two-year project,” he said. “We tried to be comprehensive on the subject and have received many good reviews.”