Rice provides expertise at CERAWeek

Nine experts from Rice University provided their insights into various topics affecting the energy industry at CERAWeek March 5-9.

CERAWeek is an international gathering of energy industry leaders and experts, government officials and policymakers, and leaders from the technology, financial and industrial communities as well as energy technology innovators. For the second year in a row, Rice was an academic partner for the event. The conference is ranked among the top five “corporate leader” conferences in the world.

Rice’s Energy and Environment Initiative (EEi) led the university’s involvement in the conference.

Charles McConnell speaks at CERAWeek

Charles McConnell photo by Jeff Fitlow

As part of the conference’s opening events, Chuck McConnell, executive director of EEi, spoke at the Future Energy Leaders program. CERAWeek partners, sponsoring companies and associations nominate participants for the program, where promising young professionals engage in learning, dialogue and networking opportunities.

McConnell, who also worked in the energy industry and served as former assistant secretary of energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, told the group to expand themselves in their young careers, “In terms of decisions that you make, take the opportunities, do the things that give you the kind of span in your lives so ultimately at some point you can be a leader, because this is what it’s all about.”

After the hourlong event, McConnell appeared live on Houston Public Media’s “Houston Matters” to discuss Rice’s involvement in CERAWeek.

“The real focus for us (Rice) is to bring to the event our thought leadership in terms of economics, policy, technology — all of the aspects that we have at Rice to contribute to the content of the event,” he said. But (it is) also for many people here to get a much better understanding of Rice University and all of the transformative work that is going on in research and education.”

Regarding how the conference can contribute to the issues in Houston specifically, McConnell said, “The theme of this year’s conference is about tipping points, and that really gets to the issue of what’s changing and what’s going to make the difference … to transform the future,” he said. “We’re working on technical issues, but it’s just not technical. It’s policy. It’s leadership. It’s workforce of the future. It’s many of the things associated with computers and big data and automated learning and deep learning.

“All of the functional new technologies and capabilities that are going to be part of our workforce going forward – how’s that going to change what it is we’re doing, because doing it the same way going into the future is really not an option,” he said.

Rice experts provided depth and breadth of knowledge to the conference.

Lydia Kavraki, professor of bioengineering and computer science, spoke about “Computation of Robot Motion — An Essential Tool for Automation.” She explained that motion planning is an essential tool for a robotic system with any level of autonomy and is particularly important for the deployment of robots in industrial automation and autonomous exploration. “We seek to drastically impact the programming of robots in complex and remote locations, such as offshore production rigs, FPSOs (floating production storage and off-loading) or oil refineries,” she said. “Our work combines formal methods from logic and verification, classical motion planning from robotics and task planning from artificial intelligence with the goal of creating robotic assistants for targeted environments.”

Jan Odegard, executive director, Rice’s Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology, spoke on a panel about theWaves of Innovation: Oceans, Technology and the Energy Future.”
 The panelists described how technology is making the once inaccessible planet accessible, transforming the understanding of the ocean. Odegaard said this will have “important implications for energy — from deep water oil and gas to offshore wind, shipping and more.”

Jones Graduate School of Business Dean Peter Rodriguez provided dinner remarks on the first night of the conference. His speech, “The Workforce of the Future, Accelerating Into the Present,” addressed how the energy industry faces great uncertainties in developing and planning for the workforce of the future. He said that “strategies for skill and workforce planning are now a key element of competitive advantage for the energy company of the future.” While experiencing an exciting wave of innovation, the industry contends with perceptions, especially among millennials, that energy is a “sunset” business. Low and volatile oil prices have compounded the challenge of attracting, training and retaining talent, he said. Automation, digitalization and “energy transition” — all are drivers that will transform the skill requirements and competencies for the industry to serve the needs of growing global energy demand moving forward.

Moshe Vardi, director of Rice’s Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology, the Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor of Computational Engineering and professor of computer science, provided a presentation on “AI and the Workforce of the Future.” A widely quoted national expert, Vardi said the market needs of the workford have not changed “so greatly and so rapidly” since the Industrial Revolution. “Data, machine learning, robotics and the overarching impact of artificial intelligence are enabling and accelerating this change,” he said.

Fred Higgs speaks at CERAWeek

Fred Higgs speaks at CERAWeek. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Matthew Brake, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, gave a presentation on “Tribomechadynamics — The Future of Oil and Gas Efficiency.” Tribomechadynamics is a new field in mechanical engineering that includes tribology (the study of surfaces in relative motion), contact mechanics and structural dynamics. Brake said the three disciplines all study mechanical interfaces, as in pumps, drilling, power generation, et cetera, and with high-performance computing and advancements in data acquisition and management, the three fields can be optimized.

Reginald DesRoches, dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, was a panelist discussing “Building the Resilient Grid of the Future: Microgrids and Beyond.”
 The panel addressed what’s ahead for microgrids and the resilient grid of the future, along with what innovations are occurring to enable operators to more effectively address the challenges of intermittent and distributed generation and leverage new generation and distribution technologies.

Sibani Lisa Biswal, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering, gave a presentation titledMicrofluidic Visualization of Oil Processes: A Real ‘Reservoir-on-a-Chip.'” She described how micromodels have been a long-established method to model reservoirs, but advances in fabrication and high-speed imaging have renewed the oil and gas industries’ interest in the use of microfluidic devices to probe oil and flow processes.

Fred Higgs, professor of mechanical engineering and faculty director of the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership, gave the closing presentation for the Future Energy Leaders program attendees. In his speech, “The Rise of the Data Aware, Algorithmic Leader: Faster, Smarter, Humbler and More Sustainable,” he said “tomorrow’s leader is preparing for a future that will be completely digital and sensed. The confluence of sensors and ultra-fast ubiquitous data means that the future product or technology leader must be humble and flexible enough to lead teams that rapidly deploy imperfect technology safely, which are then iteratively improved after learning from in-use big data feeds. The leader must be willing to pivot far from the original deployed product design. Fortunately, digital manufacturing technologies like 3D printing have emerged to realize such nimble technology development environments.”

To read more on all the events that occurred at CERAWeek, go here.

About David Ruth

David Ruth is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.