We are investigating how to store CO2 in rocks. This will help reduce emissions

The Petroleum Engineering study programme only opened a year ago in the spring at VSB – Technical University of Ostrava (VSB-TUO). So far only a select handful of students are studying the bachelor’s programme. However, the University management believes this is a promising new programme in which the students will, for example, learn to use geothermal energy, which is one of the most ecological types of energy source.

"One of the most interesting projects being undertaken at VSB-TUO is a detailed study of the potential for CO2 storage in rock structures within the Czech Republic. If we can find a way of applying this technology in practice, we could significantly help regional producers of greenhouse gasses eliminate these emissions," explains the new programme guarantor, Antonín Kunz.

Diamonds are forever, oil and gas too. This modified Bond motto was invented by teachers and students at VSB-TUO and expresses the conviction that although the whole world is switching to renewable resources, oil and gas will always be needed by mankind in some form.

Thanks to this, the management of the new Petroleum Engineering study programme believe that there will be interest in this field even after cars stop at charging stations instead of petrol stations, and biomass is used instead of gas.

Petroleum Engineering is only taught within the Czech Republic at VSB-TUO and anyone who would be interested in the extraction industry from a scientific point of view cannot actually go anywhere other than VSB-TUO in Ostrava. The course focuses mainly on the geology of hydrocarbon deposits, oil and gas extraction and deep drilling technologies. Everything in the bachelor's and master's degrees are available in two languages - Czech and English. 

In the Petroleum engineering study programme students learn, among other things, to look for oil and natural gas deposits, and also about the technology of extracting these raw materials. Isn't that a little outdated at a time when the whole world is negotiating the transition to renewable resources, which are neither oil nor natural gas?
Yes, at first glance it seems that we are going against the flow, and this is partly true. Internally at the university, we came up with a slogan that paraphrases the title of a famous film and reads: Diamonds are forever, oil and gas too. We say that hydrocarbons have a lasting value and we simply will not be able to do without them for a very long time. The extent to which hydrocarbons are used in energy production will most likely change significantly in the next few decades. However, before we move to purely renewable sources of energy we must go through a transitional period, which will be characterised by the closure of coal-fired power plants. During this time, gas sources will be the most likely alternative for electricity and heat generation.

And why gas?
This is because gas energy sources can be developed quickly and relatively cheaply, and also switched on and off rapidly. This makes them a good candidate to cover the transition period, because nuclear resources do not have this advantage. In the field of heating, both local and central, natural gas will be a very important source of energy for a long time to come.

So, when do you think mankind will completely switch to truly emission-free energy?
For me, the theoretical complete transition of all heat sources to an emission-free variant within twenty or thirty years is difficult to imagine. Basically, the only alternative would be heat pumps or photovoltaics. Just take the existing pipeline and power line infrastructure, where we would have to completely abandon the former and fundamentally rebuild the latter, which will take a long time. So, my conclusion on energy – yes it will be emission-free, but certainly not in 2050, rather in the 22nd century.

But it is not just about heat. Another category is transport and combustion of fuels made from oil. Do you think they will last until the next century?
Let's move away from the constant debate over whether electric cars are less harmful than greenhouse gas engines in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, and let's admit that they are. But then we have categories where I can't quite imagine the electric motor as a power unit, in today's form, and I emphasise in its current form, because technological progress can soon bring a revolutionary solution, for example, for batteries or superconductivity. There are also aircraft, ships, military equipment, or the space industry, so yes, petrol and diesel will definitely be needed in the future, but less than today. Therefore hydrocarbon-based fuels will still be widely used. We also need to realise that we live in the plastic age. Plastics are made from oil and their production consumes about a quarter of its extraction, depending of course, on the region. Last but not least, medical, agricultural and industrial applications depend on oil. In these non-energy fields, no dramatic change in its consumption can be expected. However, our study programme is not just about oil and gas. Graduates will also gain a robust foundation in the technical field of drilling of all categories of boreholes - from oil and gas through geothermal energy, drilling of boreholes for geological exploration to drilling of wells and boreholes for heat pumps. Part of the course is focussed on the issue of obtaining and using geothermal energy, design and operation of underground gas storage and also, for example, the storage of CO2 in rock structures. Graduates will also meet the qualification requirements to obtain most of the certificates of professional competence that are necessary for working in the extraction industry in the Czech Republic.

So, graduates with a diploma from your field will make a living even after the advent of renewable resources?
It is obvious that the need for specialists with quality professional knowledge and the practical skills acquired in the Petroleum Engineering study programme will not disappear any time soon. That is why I believe that it is necessary to overcome the current social climate, which does not favour traditional mining and geological fields, and to prepare graduates for the tasks that exist today and those which will have to be solved for decades to come. Students will be able to highly employable in geological, drilling, mining, geoenergy and related engineering disciplines.

And what is the current interest in this programme? How many applicants apply for it and how many of them do you accept?
The Petroleum Engineering study programme was only accredited this spring. We haven't had enough time to promote or provide the programme with the PR it deserves yet. At the last minute, we actually accepted several students into the first year of a part-time bachelor's degree. Despite the very short existence of the programme, we have already noticed interest from several foreign students, we are currently solving the necessary formalities so that we can include them in the teaching programme from next year. Personally, I consider it optimal if we have at least ten full-time students and ten part-time students each year.

And what type of students would you like to attract to this field?
The programme basically targets three groups of young people. The first are Czech-speaking full-time students who see their professional future in companies doing business in the field both in the Czech Republic and abroad. Another group are full-time students from abroad. We target students from countries such as Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Iraq, Vietnam and Mongolia. The reason is simple - we know that in the past many students from these countries have studied at our University, so we have something to build on. We are convinced that we are able to offer the equivalent in quality of teaching when compared to similar universities in the European Union and at a more reasonable cost. The third group are part-time students who want to broaden their education in the field for various reasons. These students are very important to us, because through them we have constant live contact with practice.

How do you project the Green Deal for Europe (The Green Agreement for Europe is a set of policy initiatives set by the European Commission, which was introduced on 11th December 2019 and should ensure the Union's transition to a more sustainable and greener economy, editor's note.) and the current environmental trends into your teaching? Do you teach any new, more environmentally friendly methods of extraction?
The Green Deal is not a new mantra, it is just another continuation of a long-term trend that formally began with the Kyoto agreement in 1997. In the meantime, different targets have been defined by different agreements at different levels, some have been met, some have not. The complexity of this issue is enormous and does not only concern the scientific or technical approach to the solution, but politics also plays a big role. By that I mean that firstly, the emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions has been an integral part of traditional university study programmes for a long time, and secondly, we have completely new subjects that have emerged as a result of the demand for greenhouse gas reduction. The Petroleum Engineering programme applies new knowledge to the traditional fields of hydrocarbon exploration and production - as an example, I can cite the study of CO2 injection into oil deposits in order to increase their extractability and at the same time as reducing the CO2 content in the atmosphere. Hand in hand with the infiltration of modern elements into traditional fields, new fields are emerging, such as the exploration and use of renewable geothermal energy sources and the creation of production wells, through which this energy is obtained.

Do your students cooperate with companies in the field during their studies?
Yes, we work closely with companies in the industry. We use personal and work contacts to bring practical professional life as close as possible to students. There are many ways to involve students in solving tasks beyond their standard studies. These are mainly student grant competitions, science and research grant projects, and commercial contracts with external partners. Other options are part-time jobs for students in exploration, extraction, or engineering companies. This applies to all students of the Department of Geological Engineering, at the Faculty of Mining and Geology, which includes Petroleum Engineering. Since we are starting this programme this year, we have not yet had the opportunity to develop the projects fully. However, we plan to work closely with drilling and engineering companies in the Czech Republic, such as MND Drilling & Services, Green Gas DPB, Diamo and Unigeo. However, due to the risk of the Covid-19 virus, it is very difficult to agree on cooperation at this time, just as it is impossible to work systematically in University laboratories.

Despite these limitations, are your students working on any interesting projects?
A current example of an interesting topic is the study of the penetration of natural gas into the polyethylene equipment of the wells for heat pumps. Several family home owners who operated heat pumps have had this problem. This phenomenon can occur in places where the building stands, for example, in a natural gas extraction area. At present, we have a simulation circuit connected in the laboratory which consists of a borehole for a heat pump, where we study the conditions of natural gas diffusion into the circulation circuit. Another very interesting project is a detailed study of the possibilities of storing CO2 in rock structures in the Czech Republic. If we can find a way of applying this technology in practice, we could significantly help regional producers of greenhouse gasses eliminate these emissions 

For example, in which companies can your graduates find employment?
In general, it can be said that within the Czech Republic, our graduates will find employment in companies that deal with mining, geology, hydrogeology, geotechnics, the environment and related engineering disciplines. When we look at local companies involved in hydrocarbon extraction and drilling, as I have already mentioned MND, MND Drilling & Services, Unigeo and Green Gas DPB or Lama Energy. There are also a number of small companies that drill wells and boreholes for heat pumps. There is certainly room for large extraction companies, which undertake both exploration and technical drilling work. I see another opportunity with companies engaged in the exploration and remediation of old mine workings and the liquidation of the consequences of mining activities, such as Diamo or PKÚ. A very interesting field is the gas industry, which opens employment opportunities at suppliers of natural gas transport and distribution systems or opportunities for highly attractive work at natural gas storage facilities. After gaining operational experience, graduates can also be employed in the state mining administration. This is just a brief list of the most obvious positions in the Czech Republic. Graduates have a wide range of opportunities to find employment in the oil and gas industry around the world, and it is only about their will and desire to work. Our strategy focuses on the quality of teaching. As I said, we target about twenty students a year, ten full-time and ten part-time. I am 100% convinced that if these twenty specialists in the field want to work, they will always find employment.

Studying at your University is definitely very technically orientated. What is the overall level of Czech students in terms of their ability to learn exact sciences such as mathematics, chemistry, design, and the like? Is it rising or falling compared to, for example, students in the 1990s?
Personally, I think that students are still the same, but the conditions of study change over time, especially when we compare the situation in the 1990s and today. The technical possibilities of obtaining information are incomparably simpler today. Therefore, I am convinced that it is more important to teach students not to be lazy, with the help of the obtained information to form their own opinion on things and test it in a suitable way. Simply to use common sense. Consuming pre-prepared superficial conclusions from the Internet is simple, convenient, but consequently quite dangerous. My Czech teacher at primary school always said that thinking hurts. So, I try to get today's students used to the pain. I have to say with great pleasure that students convince me today and every day that they can work and think very well if they want to.

How did the coronavirus pandemic affect your teaching? Do you teach everything at a distance? How are exams, internships or maybe your written tests taking place?
We teach at a distance. It is probably up to each teacher to deal with the teaching internally. Personally, this does not suit me, I lack direct communication with students, and I am convinced that the effectiveness of online teaching is lower. I am not even talking about the fact that there are subjects that the personal presence of the student and the teacher are essential - for example, mineralogy. If a student has to work in a laboratory with rock samples and a microscope, it is difficult to simulate this online. I hope that the situation will improve in the coming months, at least to the extent that students can be tested in person during the exam period. I am a little sceptical about the summer semester, but I firmly believe that everything will be fine in the winter semester of the next school year. If I had to briefly evaluate online teaching - it's a little better than if we didn't teach at all, but much worse than if we teach normally.

What if this condition lasted for another five years? Would you be able to work like this for a long time?
No. In this case, we would have to prepare the teaching differently, essentially as an automatic process, where the lecturer would not be in the role of a teacher but would only function as a navigator and consultant. We are working with colleagues on this kind of test project. I know one thing for sure - I wouldn't enjoy such a teaching model. In such a model, you do not have the opportunity to apply the teacher's personality and its influence on the student.

Do you find anything positive about that pandemic as a teacher?
In some cases, online learning is useful. Life has forced us to get acquainted with the online communication environment and I must objectively admit that some means and tools are great. At the same time, the technical limits of existing computer systems have been tested, which logically leads to their improvement. So as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining.