Tufts mechanical engineering professor wins Fulbright Distinguished Chair award
Kachanov to work on oil extraction in Brazil
Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 01:03
In today’s world, oil remains a large and serious political, economic and environmental issue — particularly American dependence on foreign oil. While easy solutions to these weighty problems seem scarce, one Tufts professor is becoming involved in changing the face of oil through his upcoming work to aid oil recovery in Brazil.
Professor of Mechanical Engineering Mark Kachanov recently won a Fulbright Distinguished Chair award, which will allow him to begin research on microstructures of the rock in which oil has been discovered in Brazil. The Fulbright Distinguished Chair Program distributes prizes for “distinguished lecturing, distinguished research and distinguished lecturing/research” and is “among the most prestigious appointments in the Fulbright Scholar Program,” according to the Fulbright website.
Kachanov said he was excited to win the award, although he said that to some extent he had been expecting it.
“I applied for this award [on the] suggestion of people in Washington ... They emailed me saying that my work in physics and applications to oil industry became well known, and they encouraged me to apply,” he said.
Upon receiving his application, the Council for International Exchange of Scholars reviewed Kachanov’s previous research. Kachanov’s prior accomplishments include winning the Humboldt Research Award and holding a position as one of two editors−in−chief of the International Journal of Engineering Science.
The Humboldt Research Award allowed him to study any topic of choice, which included micromechanics studies, he said. The prize is given to up to 100 individuals a year in fields of both sciences and arts.
“I spent one semester at two German universities, one in Munich and another one is in Darmstadt, doing things — whatever I wanted to do — with local scientists. So it was [a] kind of free−to−search award, and it covered all the expenses,” he said.
Kachanov’s plans in Brazil include research with the energy corporation Petrobras, as well as teaching with the Federal University of Pernambuco. The research that he will conduct is part of a larger initiative to begin recovery of oil in the country, he said.
“Brazil discovered huge amounts of oil comparable to Saudi Arabia’s supply of oil, with the difference that it’s not easily recoverable,” Kachanov said. “It’s at the ocean bottom, [up] to the depths of two miles ... [you need] underwater drilling, all sorts of things. And so, because of that, they decided to establish a major research environment ... and I’m essentially invited to help them start the whole thing.”
Though he has not always focused on oil extraction, Kachanov’s past research on micromechanics is highly relevant to Brazil’s current oil situation. Over the past few years, he has studied how the microstructure of materials determines their behavior.
“When we drill for oil, it’s important to know whether the rocks that contain oil are cracked or not, because if you hit some pocket where oil is, there may not be enough oil in this pocket, and it’s important to know whether this pocket of oil connects to some other pockets of oil through cracks,” he said.
According to Kachanov, one of the ways to test for these cracks involves inserting a dynamite charge in a small hole and exploding it. The speed at which the acoustic waves that the dynamite produces propagate allows the researchers to determine the extent to which the rock is cracked. Slower speeds indicate a presence of cracks that slow the waves.
“That’s one of the ways to gauge whether we do have cracks or not ... how these cracks affect the overall mechanical properties that determine the speed of acoustic waves,” he said.
Though Kachanov’s research will not decrease America’s dependence upon foreign oil, it will affect the current oil situation in other ways, he said.
“Oil supply is limited. And right now it’s in the hands of Middle Eastern countries — highly unstable — and in addition to that, Saudi Arabia has already exhausted a large part of its reserves. So the fact that comparable, huge deposits of oil are found in Brazil — [a] friendly country — and the oil deposits there are huge, I think it’s of great importance,” he said.
Understanding the complexity of oil drilling and clean energy debates, Kachanov also addressed the practicality of his research.
“At some point in the future we might get rid of oil dependence at all and do something else, but for the next so many years, we do depend on oil, we do want to drive cars and heat our houses and all sorts of things,” he said.