TAMEST Member Profile: Oliver C. Mullins, Ph.D. (NAE), SLB

Carlos Roberto Jaén, M.D., Ph.D.

TAMEST Member Oliver C. Mullins, Ph.D. (NAE), SLB Fellow at SLB (formerly Schlumberger), is a chemist and earth science technologist who has dedicated much of his career to transforming the oil and gas industry. His work has led to an entirely new discipline in reservoir evaluation, Reservoir Fluid Geodynamics (RFG), and he is the primary originator of Downhole Fluid Analysis (DFA) in well logging. The Yen-Mullins model of asphaltene science was also named in part after his research. 

When he isn’t leading an active research group in petroleum science, Dr. Mullins says he always leaves time in his life to give back and help mentor the next generation. He is an adjunct professor of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University and serves on the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards Technology Innovation sub-committee at TAMEST.

In 2022, Dr. Mullins was named a “Pioneer in Energy Research,” by the Energy & Fuels division of the American Chemical Society for his distinguished contributions to fundamental science and applied engineering research in the petroleum industry. 

TAMEST connected with Dr. Mullins to learn more about his trailblazing discoveries, the future of green energy, and why industry researchers deserve more recognition outside of their companies.

Please share a little bit about yourself and your work.

I’m a chemist and many years ago, after my education, I got a job offer and joined the oil industry. I really can’t imagine it any other way.

I’ve helped to resolve the molecular and colloidal structure of the “black stuff,” known as asphaltenes, in oil, which had been a huge debate in the literature up until that point. I’ve co-edited three books on the topic and helped to create the Yen-Mullins model, named by a professor at Stanford University, which specifies the predominant molecular and colloidal structures of asphaltenes in crude oils and laboratory solvents.

The model provides a foundation for the development of the first asphaltene equation of state for predicting asphaltene gradients in oil reservoirs. We were able to resolve rather quickly a proper thermodynamic model for reservoir crude oil, which allowed us to determine whether the reservoir oils in their subsurface reservoirs are equilibrated. I’ve also launched a new technical discipline, Reservoir Fluid Geodynamics (RFG), which I outline in my latest book.

My older son jokingly refers to my asphaltene books as “the trilogy,” as if people are waiting around to read all three with bated breath. However, it is just great fun using a physical chemistry approach to earth science and using nanoparticles to understand these massive reservoirs.

What made you choose earth sciences as your career path?

Well, I led the development of some new oilfield measurements early on in my research with SLB, and my headquarters asked me, “Do you want to stay in research and develop new technology or do you want to follow your products into the application in the oilfield?”

I had been doing research for quite a while by that time and thought it was time to try something new. So, I started working with our clients, the operating companies, all around the world in the application of this technology. That propelled me deeply into earth science.

In the oil industry or any industry in general, if you can apply new science and new technology together, good things happen. We have been able to do that in oilfields, and this provides new insights into earth science and never-ending opportunities to learn.

You were recently named a “Pioneer in Energy Research” by Energy and Fuels, what did the honor mean to you?

It feels like I’ve been working in asphaltene science since time started, but I technically joined the oil industry in 1986. I knew I’d be working on some measurements that are essential for understanding reservoirs better. In my industry, you want a very robust science for field application that isn’t going to be delicate and that can be employed in reservoirs around the world. We developed optical chemical analytics of crude oils for wellbore applications which is now widely used in the industry.

But I also wanted to perform some kind of frontier research. I looked at the chemical literature of crude oils and found that huge debates swirled around the black stuff in crude oil, the asphaltenes. Oh, my goodness, people were arguing at least a factor of 1,000 in molecular weight of asphaltenes. Without the resolution of the molecular weight there could be really very little advance in the field.

My team led the resolution of that, and we did the first molecular diffusion measurements. Our team got a surprising result, which was heavily debated at the time, but then eventually confirmed. We went on to contribute to clarification of the asphaltene molecular architecture and nanocolloidal structure as well. The fights are useful and can reveal the correct answers, but personally, they are difficult.

It’s very nice to be recognized by Energy and Fuels for those contributions. I’ve been part of a big community and I know our team members also appreciate the recognition and the spotlight on the importance of the work being done by so many contributors at different organizations.

What makes you most passionate about your work?

I think I inherited my passion from my parents who were both professors. My father was a famous physicist and when he was dying he was upset about a lot of things – not seeing his grandchildren grow up and all that. However, he was also upset because he had just launched some new nanoscience capability, and he wouldn’t be able to see that to fruition.

I’m afraid I’m a chip off that block. I just really love this stuff and I think I get my passion for inquiry from him. It’s at least congenital if not genetic, and it really is enjoyable for me to study and look at what mother nature has crafted.

Are you a native Texan?

Not originally but I am now! Prior to moving here, I was living in Connecticut near our SLB Research Center. It was a very enjoyable community, and I could get on my bicycle and I’d be in horse country in 10 minutes.

Living in Houston is very different, but I have grown to really enjoy it quite a bit. We live near the Medical Center, and I get to walk to the area museums pretty regularly. No one will go with me anymore, I’ve used up all their interests, but I don’t mind going alone.

You’ve been a part of the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards Committee at TAMEST for several years. Why are they important?

Well, I really enjoy TAMEST. The meetings are great, and I love discussing all kinds of scientific advancements in our state over finger food and cocktails. It’s a wonderful thing to see the very strong research community we’ve developed in our state.

For our O’Donnell Awards, it’s wonderful to be a part of the awards committee because you get to look under the hood and see all the tremendous work being done by our up-and-coming researchers across the state. I think the award is powerful and important for Texas as a recruitment and retention tool, especially the Technology Innovation award. 

What makes the Technology Innovation award different?

It is the only industry award of the five O’Donnell Awards. In academia, universities are founded on the reputation of their professors, but in industry it works differently. It is founded on the reputation of its products and there can often be a dissociation of the product with the technical contributors.  

The Technology Innovation award helps shine a light on the technical innovators and the companies responsible for major innovations in our state. It helps companies understand the value of their employees and their commitment to the employees who are going to generate their products. In fact, I think it’s something that is underappreciated in industry.

The hope is that this award sheds light on the importance of recognition for technical staff and allows them to attend our conference and present their industrial research alongside the best of the best that Texas research has to offer.

Do you think that there is an answer to creating more visibility for individual researchers in company cultures?

I do think there’s a responsibility on the part of the companies themselves to foster the idea that their employees should be recognized externally. There are ways to disseminate the information about who invented what at an organization. For example, it is embedded in the patents for the product. Once you patent things you can then publish them and make them visible to the wider scientific community.

Sometimes companies may be a little worried that their employees will get recruited or that their research programs will be replicated by a competitor if they talk about research outside of their organization. However, I think the need for external recognition is generally becoming more understood – at least in the industry sector.

There will always be competition and we need to get better at leveraging activities in different organizations to move the needle forward. I think companies are beginning to see that and be more open. The Technology Innovation O’Donnell Award is providing a pathway to achieve that.

Why do you volunteer your time and expertise to TAMEST?

I think it is important across the board to look at what needs to be done outside of your own work and then to try to carve out the time and energy to go do it.

For me, I am very passionate about maintaining a link between academia and industry and TAMEST in particular does a great job with that, as do the National Academies. To me, this is an important mission – energizing students to become the innovative researchers of tomorrow.

I think the next generation of technologists must be encouraged to address issues in a sensible manner that looks at many different approaches. I think organizations like TAMEST and programs like the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards, which bring together a broad group of disciplines and expertise, can create the space to talk about cross-disciplinary approaches to future solutions. 

Is diversity of thought important in the oil industry?

The oil industry is the best model that I’m aware of in the world for diversity. We have true technical contributors from all over the globe and to me that makes the oil industry a lot of fun.

I might be going to Angola or Indonesia, or wherever, and you find these technical contributors that bring their different perspectives while trying to achieve a common goal. It’s very positive and at the same time very enlightening to see all different cultures and different types of people working side-by-side.

To me, it is an important reminder for how to handle a multi-cultural society working toward shared solutions. The oil industry does not sacrifice technical excellence in achieving this diversity and I think that is very powerful.

What do you think the next big thing is in the oil industry?

One of the issues that is so critical in oil right now is how to handle the future of energy. Some people say, “it needs to be all green energy-based energy production.” Others say, “we need to use the energies that we’re using today.”

The fact is that both are correct. You can’t resolve today’s energy with tomorrow’s solution. It’ll require time and energy to maintain standards of living and there are a lot of environmental issues that still need to be understood. There has to be an evolution.

My personal view, which is aligned with many energy agencies, is that hydrocarbons will continue to be used for a long time, and for many different reasons. Some countries rely on hydrocarbons for their revenue, and so to me, that means Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will be required for future solutions.

Managing complex subsurface fluids is the heart and soul of the oil industry and I think the industry has a lot to give and provide in this energy transition.

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