To understand aufeis, drones and frozen lobes, Alaska’s resource industry relies on university research

SPONSORED: Engineering researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks help keep oil and gas production tech-forward, efficient and safe.

Presented by UAF Advisory Board

It’s a fact of life in Alaska: If you’re going to build a highway, you’re going to have to cross a lot of rivers, which means you’re going to have to design some bridges.

If you make the bridge too small, it’s a safety hazard; if you build it too big, it’s a waste of money. And often, there isn’t enough historical data for you to know exactly how much you need to build. You’re going to have to make an educated guess.

That’s where the researchers at UAF come in.

“The university is very good at making educated guesses, because that’s what we do,” said Bill Schnabel, dean of the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Engineering and Mines.

From bridges to roads to pipelines, Alaska’s resource industry builds and maintains a lot of infrastructure, often under circumstances that are unique to the far north. And when Alaskans need answers to those questions in order to develop resources -- like how big to build a bridge, where to route a road, or when technology can be used to help people work more safely -- they often turn to UAF for guidance.

A northern research university

Alongside its certificate, baccalaureate and graduate degree programs, UAF conducts research in a variety of fields, including energy, biology, engineering and geophysics. More than 80 percent of the university’s research is directly related to issues that affect Alaska.

“At Fairbanks, we do a whole lot of different things because there’s nobody else to do it, and it has to get done,” Schnabel said. “We need to adapt to the arctic and subarctic conditions, and we recognize that nobody is going to do this work for us. We have to do it ourselves. That translates into all aspects of what we do.”

Unlike industries that follow established standards and protocols, university researchers specialize in drawing on knowledge and data to find new ways of doing things.

“When we want to teach students, undergraduates, they come in the classroom (and) we teach them what we already know about engineering,” Schnabel said. “What we’re doing when conducting research is we are learning new things and teaching ourselves those things that aren’t known yet.”

The list of questions facing UAF researchers is long and getting longer, from maintaining arctic infrastructure to finding ways to bring sustainable energy to rural Alaska. Sometimes the questions are controversial, with passionate advocates on all sides. That’s why it is critical to develop valid, unbiased data, according to Schnabel.

“We must pursue new ideas,” he said. “There are a lot of things that are unknown that we need to know. We, as a state -- we’re the ones that are faced with the challenges. It’s up to us to define our own future, to build our own future, to figure out our way forward.”

The experiment putting heavy oil within reach

Sometimes that way forward means working with the industry to maximize resource production without expanding its footprint. UAF researchers are partnering with Hilcorp, for example, to study how polymer flooding can help produce heavy oil out of existing North Slope wells.

“Heavy oil -- we have always known that it does exist in vast quantities on the Slope,” said Professor Abhijit Dandekar, chair of UAF’s petroleum engineering department. “Unfortunately, the recovery of heavy oils has always been really, really insignificant compared to (the standard) Prudhoe Bay type of oil.”

Beginning in 2017, UAF teamed up with Hilcorp and researchers from New Mexico Tech, the University of North Dakota and the State Technical College of Missouri to see if injecting reservoirs with a viscous polymer could aid in the production of Alaska’s hard-to-get heavy oil. The ongoing project is the largest polymer injection work that has been undertaken in North America -- and it’s working.

“The results are very good,” Dandekar said. “With that success, in fact, there is going to be, I would say, a sort of renaissance on the North Slope as far as heavy oil is concerned.”

Using polymers to produce heavy oil has environmental benefits, according to Dandekar. Unlike steam injection, which is used in California’s heavy oil reservoirs, polymer injection doesn’t require additional energy to heat materials, and it protects the permafrost that is vital to Alaska’s ecosystem. And it means more oil can be produced from existing reservoirs without expanding their surface footprint.

“We’re proud of our partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks on the Milne Point polymer flooding project,” said Luke Saugier, Hilcorp’s senior vice president for Alaska. “UAF’s faculty and students provide outstanding Arctic and industry expertise, as well as technical and project support. As we build on our initial success, we’re expanding polymer flooding to additional patterns and reservoirs at Milne Point and continue to evaluate new opportunities across the North Slope.”

Preserving Alaska’s lifelines

The trans-Alaska oil pipeline isn’t just the backbone of Alaska’s economy; it’s a living laboratory for UAF researchers. Year after year, they work alongside Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. employees to ensure oil flows down pipe in a way that protects the state’s lands, people and economy.

From Prudhoe Bay to Atigun Pass, the pipeline and the Dalton Highway run roughly alongside the Sagavanirktok (Sag) River.

“That’s a really important river, and it’s a big wild river, and it does what it does,” Schnabel said. “And it’s been acting differently lately.”

In 2015, the river began to change course. A natural dam formed from aufeis, a type of ice that forms upwards from the ground surface, and caused “epic” flooding in Deadhorse, cutting off the primary supply route to the entire North Slope oil patch.

“We’ve had a team up there ever since,” Schnabel said.

University researchers are conducting ongoing work with the oil and gas industry and the Alaska Department of Transportation to determine how flooding on the Sag River can be predicted and prevented. That research is helping to inform Alyeska’s flood mitigation planning.

“It’s so remote, and there’s so little data available on the entire basin,” said Alexandre Lai, senior engineer on Alyeska’s civil integrity team. “We just didn’t have enough information to go on and to be able to predict things and plan for the future.”

UAF and its partners have established remote meteorological stations to monitor temperature and precipitation and share hydrological data about the Sag River. The university also monitors spring ice conditions, gathers data about Sag River spur dikes and conducts snow studies for Alyeska in remote areas, all information that helps the oil and gas industry predict conditions that impact their work.

“Things like the flood, the aufeis that we had, we had not experienced before in the pipeline,” Lai said. “They really brought to light that there were changes taking place in terms of field conditions there. Based on that, then we can really know what, for example -- if you’re even going to design a highway, how high do you make this highway on the flood plain? How high do we need to make it, how robust do we need to make it, to withstand these events? In the long run, it helps us reduce risk, and that also helps us to be more efficient.”

Studying a slow-moving threat

Aufeis isn’t the only natural phenomenon that presents a hazard to the Dalton Highway. Elsewhere on the Slope, a “frozen debris lobe” in the permafrost is inching into the haul road’s path. It’s one of dozens such slow-moving landslides creeping down the slopes of the Brooks Range, and it moves from 20 to 50 feet a year, gradually traveling downslope toward the highway.

“You can see it,” Schnabel said. “You can measure it. It’s going to wipe out the highway, requiring us to re-route the highway around it.”

It’s a uniquely Alaska problem, he added: “They don’t have frozen debris lobes in most other places.”

Although they don’t present an immediate danger, debris lobes have the potential to arrive at the pipeline within its lifetime, according to Frank Wuttig, a geotechnical engineer on Alyeska’s integrity team -- so it’s critical to learn more about them.

“At some point, we’re going to have to decide how to fix the problem,” Wuttig said. “Permafrost continues to change. Now we have climate change superimposed on that disturbance. That’s where we have to manage that. That’s where UAF comes in.”

Alyeska works with the university to monitor slopes that the pipeline passes over or near, using highly technical testing that isn’t commonly available in the commercial market.

“They have cold rooms, both in Anchorage at UAA and at UAF, and we test permafrost samples for the mechanical behavior -- i.e., creep,” Wuttig said. “Movement is super sensitive to temperature.”

Wuttig’s team also makes use of the university’s satellite-based and ground-based radar to monitor landslides.

“We kind of leverage things that they’re already doing and trying to take to the next level,” Wuttig said.

Patrolling the pipeline by drone

Want to get engineering students excited about fieldwork? Promise them drones.

“Drones are student magnets,” Schnabel said. “Who doesn’t want to go to college and study drones?”

But the unpiloted aircraft aren’t just fun toys -- they’re a powerful tool for keeping the pipeline in good working condition while minimizing risk to Alyeska’s employees. Since 2014, UAF and Alyeska have worked together to use line-of-sight drone flights for aerial mapping projects, monitoring changes along the route, and inspecting the pipe. The flights save time and effort, especially in cases where a manual inspection would require a shutdown, according to Jacques Cloutier, who provides technical oversight for Alyeska’s mapping and survey activities.

“”It’s a different viewpoint, a different way of looking at the problem, and maybe allows us to make those decisions without exposing (workers to) a dangerous environment,” Cloutier said.

UAF and Alyeska are now working to expand their use of drones beyond the line of sight. Alyeska’s partnership with UAF enabled it to become the very first U.S. commercial operator to fly a drone beyond line of sight.

“We look at this as another opportunity for us to be able to keep an eye on our pipeline, to make sure that we’re not at risk from a variety of things -- flooding, geotechnical, slopes being unstable, earthquakes,” Cloutier said. “We want to make sure the pipe is not at any type of risk.”

The partnership has given Alyeska the ability to try new things and look at the pipeline in new, more efficient ways. Flare stack inspections, for example, used to require shutting down the pipeline, cooling the equipment that vents ignited natural gas, and then sending an inspector up to the stack to look for problems. Drones make it possible to inspect a flare stack from a distance without having to shut down the pipeline.

“Right now we send security people out all the time,” Cloutier said. “If there was an unexpected event and we couldn’t get a helicopter to that site, we could fly a drone. That’s the big opportunity there, is just giving us more flexibility.”

Partnerships for Alaska

Research partnerships between the university and the industry work for a simple reason: They are mutually beneficial. The university gets access, opportunity and funding to conduct its research and get its students working in the field, while industry partners benefit from advanced technologies and expertise.

“(Without UAF), we wouldn’t be as involved in demonstrating that cutting-edge technology,” Cloutier said. “We would be kind of behind the curve. By being involved with (UAF’s drone work) right away, it helps our operation even today. It’s a great synergy to kind of bounce those ideas back and forth. I love it.”

The state as a whole also benefits, Alyeska employees said, because UAF’s programs produce engineers who are uniquely trained to work in Alaska.

“UAF is America’s arctic university, and there’s nothing else like it,” said Wuttig, who earned his geological engineering degree at UAF with a specialty in permafrost engineering. “It’s really unique in that regard. There are very few permafrost engineers in the world, and there’s a lot of permafrost. I couldn’t do this job without my UAF education.”

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is a Land, Sea, and Space Grant university and an international center for research, education, and the arts, emphasizing the circumpolar North and its diverse peoples. Learn more at

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the Sponsor. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.