My first contact with Total was through Total E&P Canada in 2005. A few years later, Total became one of the founding sponsors of my Industrial Research Chair in Pipeline Transport Processes at the University of Alberta, which is now in its 9th year of operation! Initially, the relationship was primarily around reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water usage in oil sands processing.
As the years passed, though – as in most great relationships – we discovered we had a lot of other areas that we cared about – like flow assurance and pipeline reliability. A lot of the work I do with Total now is related to North Sea production, especially sand accumulation / transport in processing lines.
What benefits do you see to industry supporting your work in this way?
When I work with a company like Total, that sees the value of longer-term research, it is almost like something magic happens. My students and I reap the benefits of stable, longer-term funding and we always know, because of the connection with Total, the direct line-of-sight between the research results and the field application.
This is especially powerful for the students, who really have to keep an industrial focus – this prevents them from losing sight of the forest and focusing just on one interesting tree! Also, the students have opportunities (internships, attending Total-sponsored meetings and conferences) that arise only because of the industry support. For me, a relationship with an industrial partner is like a never-ending source of new ideas for research.
How does Total benefit from your relationship?
There’s the obvious one I guess – new research results that help improve their engineering practices – which are foundational to the relationship. On top of that, engineers from Total get to meet, and work one-on-one with students, so in a way they get frontline access to the students that do research in my group. We are also able to contribute to the professional development of Total engineers by giving workshops and working side-by-side with them on specific problems.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that because Total moves people in and out of positions relatively quickly, as part of each employee’s professional development, I’m able to provide some continuity on very specific issues through those personnel changes.
How important is the role of industry in sharing knowledge and expertise amongst the academic community, and the wider community?
While I completely understand some companies need to protect a competitive advantage, I think sometimes this notion is applied too fervently, tending to isolate the company in some ways that are unexpected. For example, if a company becomes overly secretive, they certainly will protect their ideas but this could result in young engineers not seeing that company as an exciting, innovative place to work. This is one of the things I love about Total’s ‘start-up’ mentality and the way they encourage everyone – Total employees, students, academic researchers – to bring new ideas.
Additionally, the issues we face – the inter-relationships among water, energy, food for example – are unbelievably complex and require teams with diverse educational and cultural backgrounds. Total has the resources to act as a gravitation pull on thinkers and doers with different perspectives.
What are your future hopes for your relationship with Total?
Well, like any good relationship, you really want to grow together. A good example is the commitment Total has made to solar energy. Although my research has traditionally been in the oil and gas sector, I can see ways that my research on fluid-particle systems could lead to improved solar energy storage facilities. Hopefully in 5-10 years’ time, I can tell you all about it!