Grad student research in Tuscaloosa laboratory earns national accolades


Research emerging from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Tuscaloosa Marine Shale Laboratory is earning accolades.

A paper written and presented by Cristina Ruse and Jamal Ahmadov won second place in the Society of Petrophysicists and Well Log Analysts’ International Student Paper Competition held in June. Ruse and Ahmadov are pursuing graduate degrees in petroleum engineering and work as research assistants in the lab.

The Tuscaloosa Marine Shale Laboratory is a multidisciplinary consortium of geologists, petroleum engineers, geophysicists and economic development experts from UL Lafayette and four other institutions. Researchers are studying how to best recover the substantial oil and gas bounty its namesake offers.

The Tuscaloosa Marine Shale touches 28 parishes in south and central Louisiana and several southwestern Mississippi counties. Parts of the formation are 15,000 feet – 2.9 miles – below the surface. It contains an estimated 7 billion barrels of light, sweet crude oil.

Its size, depth, and frequently unstable geology have made the play among the most expensive places to drill in the country.

In their paper, Ruse and Ahmadov suggest using machine learning to predict the geomechanical properties of the formation. Ruse said knowing these properties is essential to hydraulic fracturing, one of the methods by which the oil and gas can be extracted.

Machine-learning algorithms use statistics to find patterns in large amounts of data. They provide an alternative to other analytical tools, Ruse explained.

“Many of the tedious calculations associated with these analytical methods can be eliminated by using the machine-learning model,” that she and Ahmadov propose in their paper.

A $9.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and several energy companies funded the lab’s creation in early 2018. The consortium is headed by Dr. Mehdi Mokhtari, an associate professor in UL Lafayette’s Department of Petroleum Engineering.

In addition to UL Lafayette, the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale Laboratory includes researchers from New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Lab, the Missouri University of Science and Technology, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Southern Mississippi.

The grant that funded the lab’s creation is part of an initiative by the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy to examine unconventional oil and gas plays.

The energy industry considers a play – the name it gives an area where oil and gas exist – as unconventional based on its geographic size and geological makeup. An unconventional play might encompass thousands, even millions of acres. The Tuscaloosa Marie Shale covers 8 million acres.

Unlike conventional oil and gas reservoirs, unconventional resources are usually trapped within formations with poor permeability, such as shale. That means the liquid is suspended and retrieving it requires nontraditional methods of extraction, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

The nonprofit Society of Petrophysicists and Well Log Analysts was founded in 1959. Its annual symposium enables students to present research findings and offers scholarship opportunities.

Ruse received SPWLA scholarships in 2018, 2019 and again this year. Ahmadov is a two-time recipient, in 2019 and 2020.

Also among this year’s scholarship recipients from UL Lafayette were Asiman Saidzade, a petroleum engineering graduate student who’s also a research assistant in the Tuscaloosa lab, and Shelby J. Stewart, an MBA student and the lab’s research coordinator.

Philip Wortman, a petroleum engineering doctoral student and graduate research assistant, was a finalist in the International Student Paper Competition.

Find more about the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale Laboratory at or by viewing this video on YouTube.

Photo caption: Cristina Ruse and Jamal Ahmadov (Photos courtesy of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale Laboratory / UL Lafayette)