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Fueling an engineer’s need to know

Petroleum engineers are using Knovel to create safer and more environmentally friendly extraction processes

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To solve problems, engineers need to access and assimilate reliable information and data on a wide range of materials, processes and technologies. (Screenshot of Knovel with photo © istockphoto.com/vm)

Editor’s note: This month, we are exploring the theme of “data and efficiency in science and medicine.” Getting the right information quickly is crucial for engineers, who are using smart technology to solve the challenges of energy and environment.


Oil is the world’s most important fuel; it powers an estimated 97 percent of our transportation, and it’s closely tied to the global economy. Demand increases steadily by 1 to 2 percent every year, with the International Energy Outlook 2016 predicting we will use 121 million barrels of oil and other liquid fuels a day in 2040 – up from 90 million in 2012.

But we have a problem: supply is dwindling. There is more than 2 trillion barrels worth of oil in reserves around the world, but we’re using it faster than the earth can replace it. While scientists and engineers continue to develop ways to harness renewable energy, we also need to find better ways to extract the resources we rely on, including less common fuel sources like bitumen – a viscous liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum.

In addition, the demand is increasing for more environmentally friendly approaches to fossil fuel extraction. And safety is a constant concern – for the petroleum workers as well as for the people and wildlife that are affected when processes go awry.

Matteo Caligaris, PhD”The weight of these challenges increasingly falls on the shoulders of engineers,” said Dr. Matteo Caligaris, Solution Consultant - Engineering for Knovel. To design better, safer and cost-effective extraction techniques, he explained, engineers often need to piece together their understanding of existing approaches, new technologies and a range of materials, leaving room for creativity.

The pressure is on – the negative environmental impacts of existing techniques have led to widespread protests, sometimes stopping extraction.

Clean and efficient extraction

“Engineers start with the data to solve problems,” explained Dr. Caligaris, citing the development of a new extraction method for the fossil fuel bitumen. There are 250 billion barrels of bitumen worldwide, most of which is deposited in Canada. It’s a promising source of fuel, but traditional extraction techniques have been widely criticized for their environmental impacts. The oil sands in Canada are too deep to use open-pit mining to reach the supply, leaving in-situ techniques that require huge volumes of water.

With growing demand for environmentally friendly approaches to mitigate the unfavorable impacts of fossil fuel extraction, one of Caligaris’ clients, a Canada-based engineering firm, focused on improving the traditional bitumen extraction process by using solvents instead of steam. After many years of research and development, the company launched a patented process that extracts oil sands using warm solvents instead of water. Because the process uses far less energy, it generates one-quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions of traditional technologies.

This level of innovation was achievable with a foundation of data and information, made increasingly more efficient to access through smart technology.

Information as a key to improving processes

Diana Bittern, Elsevier’s Senior Director of Product Management and Delivery for Reference Solutions, consults with an environmental engineer to learn more about his work.The understanding of traditional extraction methods, the exploration of process improvement, and the examination of solvents as an alternative to water required reliable information. This kind of information is stored in thousands of engineering books that contain vast tables and static graphs. Searching these manually can be a long and laborious process.

In Knovel, information is discoverable with a quick search. It’s also actionable: engineers can sort and filter a table, select specific rows and export the information to Excel. They can add their own data points to a graph to use in a presentation to management, or plug their own numbers into an equation – all with the sources clearly cited.

As Diana Bittern, Elsevier’s Senior Director of Product Management and Delivery for Reference Solutions, explained, this is particularly important for engineers:

Sometimes tables in handbooks have 70,000 rows, so being able to manipulate them as if they were a spreadsheet is extremely valuable. For example, say I want to build a bridge and need to come up with a specific data to report values for the shear stress of the steel alloy I am recommending. I can search for this material and property, and the results give me a table filtered to the specific information I need. I can then save it to My Knovel, share it with my team, and export it for my engineering report. Not only can I find trusted information quickly, but it’s actionable too.

This business-wide value is the real benefit of reliable data, Dr. Caligaris noted:

William Edwards Deming, an American engineer and management consultant who worked to improve Japan’s technical capabilities after World War II, said ‘without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.’ This is valid in engineering – you need to back up everything you say, every number you put on paper, with established knowledge. Being able to access content that is reliable and has been reviewed for trustworthiness is important. A very small change, like using a product like Knovel, can have an enormous effect downstream.

The benefits of reliable data are compounded: using it means greater efficiency and less possibility for error, which propagates positive effects throughout a company. Take corrosion for example: without the right information, an engineer may select the wrong material; leaks and corrosion can lead to health and safety issues, resulting in products that cannot be sold or require expensive remediation.

Sometimes coming up with a novel process means starting with a blank slate. Being focused on technology development, an engineer can use Knovel to get a good grounding and conceptually understand a task or problem, searching further to narrow down to a more specific solution. That was the case for the engineer from the Canadian firm:

When I’m developing something it’s often the first of its kind, whether it’s a new process or a new piece of equipment. By definition I’m encountering things that are unfamiliar to me. I always get a big kick out of keeping a wide-open horizon and not developing tunnel vision too early. When I’m working on a new problem, I start with all the things we could do, read up on them for a conceptual grounding, then narrow down. This is where Knovel is useful – if you need to learn a little about a lot of things, it’s a good place to start.

How Knovel works

Engineers have access to a wealth of information to help them make decisions. But this information is often buried in thick reference books; they need a way to access and use it more efficiently. With Knovel, engineers can quickly identify and assess a wide range of materials, processes and technologies, giving them the foundations on which to build new ideas. Knovel extracts millions of data points from thousands of books and relevant databases, delivering them to engineers through interactive graphs, tables and equations. These resources help them find time-critical data and navigate new realms of knowledge directly on the platform, where they can store it and share it with colleagues. With their expertise, engineers can use these resources to tackle the challenges of their profession – and our planet – to come up with innovative solutions.

Data and efficiency in science and medicine

Empowering Unfamiliar KnowledgeEngineers seeking a safer method for extracting energy must explore unfamiliar terrain. To solve the challenges of energy and environment, engineers with smart technology can quickly assimilate new subject areas. Elsevier's tools and technologies help professionals find the answers they need to create innovative solutions. By helping engineers navigate new realms of knowledge, we're helping them tackle the challenges of their profession and our planet.

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