The BP oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico mushroomed into an environmental and economic disaster after an explosion on a drilling rig less than 50 miles off Louisiana killed 11 workers on April 20, 2010. The next day, an emergency call was made to a small Ithaca-based company.
Arthur F. Kuckes and his team were waiting for action. "While the last surface attempts to finally kill the well were being attempted, our equipment was on a standby for a few months, deployed, downhole in the relief well a few feet from the proposed kill location in the problem well", said Kuckes, founder and chief executive officer of Vector Magnetics, and a professor emeritus of applied and engineering physics. "After receiving the final go-ahead, we essentially killed it in a week."
Drilling a relief well is a last resort and Vector Magnetics has become a first name in a small group of experts around the world with the technical know-how. Using its specialized suite of guidance and measurement tools and software, Vector Magnetics tracks a relief well to a point where it can intersect the troubled well to close it.
A mile beneath the sea and more than two miles under the seabed, the Deepwater Horizon well posed unique pressure and temperature challanges for the company Kuckes established 25 years ago. Still, Kuckes said that, operationally, it was not much different from the hundred relief and directional wells Vector Magnetics has worked on around the world.
The Deepwater Horizon project showcased drilling and measurement expertise that otherwise gets little attention. It stands out for Kuckes for its social and environmental importance -an estimated 4.4 million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf.
"It was very satisfying in terms of its significance", he said.
Kuckes, who came to Cornell in 1968, began experimenting with electromagnetic sensing and guidance in the early eighties. In 1985, he took a leave of absence to start Vector Magnetics. Two years later, with business taking off, he took an early retirement from the university.
Vector Magnetics also works wells in coal-bed methane production and horizontal drilling of underground pipelines. The company, with more than 20 employees directed from its office on Cherry Street in Ithaca, performs half its work around the globe. "You name it", Kuckes said, "we've probably been there."
In December, a Vector Magnetics team was working two relief wells in Nigeria in addition to another problem well 50 miles away from the Deepwater Horizon site. It is highly specialized work. Oil and gas companies will always try to control a blowout from the surface because it is faster and cheaper.
"Essentially it's not a good business to be in because it's feast or famine", Kuckes said with a laugh. "You're a fireman, waiting for the phone to ring."
When Vector Magnetics employees reached the platform from which one of two relief wells was being drilled, it was a busy stage of oil and gas industry workers. The three engineers set up shop in a small room packed with equipment and electronics and waited to get to work.
When drilling a relief well, the drill operator bores it to the desired depth and location, then the crew pulls the entire drill pipe out of the hole, cleans the hole, and pulls out the drill string. The the hole is turned over to Vector Magnetics, which readies its sensing and measuring equipment for deployment. The self-contained package is attached at the drill bit, and lowered down to the bottom of the well where the measurements are taken. A series of measurements using electromagnetic sensing will be taken at various intervals in a "homing in" process that is refined time and again. After the intercept, BP pumped heavy drilling fluid and cement into the well for the final kill.
In the end, half of the runs used "open hole" equipment Vector Magnetics has used successfully for years. The other measurements utilized its new generation of tools which had to be adapted to meet the challenge of higher pressures and temperature.
"Each time you go about this the horizon gets a little higher, the fence gets a little higher", Kuckes said.