Day in the Life: University of WA School of Mechanical and Chemical Engineering senior lecturer Dr Zach Aman

The University of WA team at the International Conference on Gas Hydrates in Beijing last year, comprising Bruce Norris, Dr Paul Stanwix, Professor Eric May, Masoumeh Akhfash and Dr Zach Aman. By Courtney Pearson

May 6, 2015

What does your role involve?

My role is as a senior lecturer at UWA, so that involves a balance between teaching and research as well as service to the university and oil and gas community. I typically teach two to three classes a year and then I collaborate in a much larger research group – the Fluid Science and Resources Division at UWA – which is built from a number of academics who work in various sectors of oil and gas including emulsion technology, LNG and gas processing.

What would be a typical work day for you?

Typically it’s either a teaching day or a research day. If it’s a teaching day it’s comprised of lectures and tutorials. A lot of our teaching is based on project-based learning. It’s quite fun. The students have an opportunity to come and ask questions and pitch their project ideas to get feedback on them and have discussions. At the research laboratory we typically have between six and eight different apparatuses running at the same time. Those days tend to be a balance of working at equipment, teaching students how to use the equipment, writing up reports and summarising the results for manuscripts and conference presentations.

Why did you want to get into mechanical and chemical engineering?

I originally wanted to get into chemistry in high school. I quite liked chemistry and was decently good with the topic and I thought, this is going to be a lot of fun. But I thought, how does one apply chemistry and how could you do something really productive with it? Chemical engineering sounded like something where you applied chemistry. It turned out that chemical engineering is much more applied mathematics than it is chemistry. I got into chemical engineering by chance, as it were, but then ended up really enjoying the topic and the types of real-world problems that chemical engineers get to solve. I ended up staying on for a graduate degree and have since joined academia to continue that.

How long did you take to get to where you are now?

I spent four years in my undergraduate [degree] and that was at the Colorado School of Mines in Denver. I stayed on that program as it’s one of the leading gas hydrate programs in the world and I had the honour of staying there for my PhD, which took three-and-a-half years. After that I joined the Fluid Science and Resources Division with Professors Eric May and Michael Johns at UWA as a post-doctoral associate for two years. I very much liked what was happening in Perth. It’s such an exciting time right now and [there’s] a wonderful research group. I had the opportunity to join the group as an academic earlier in the year. It’s been about a 10-year journey, from deciding to go after chemical engineering to today.

Tell me about your research.

Most of my research is in flow assurance technology. We’re looking at new and different ways to enable frontiers, such as deepwater environments, and also understand how we can save costs for current operating environments by either adapting or developing novel flow assurance technologies. Hydrates are one of the largest flow assurance problems. One example is under-inhibition, where we could inject less MEG than would typically be required to completely avoid hydrates, while being able to manage the amount of hydrates effectively. We’re also looking at new risk assessment strategies to quantify the probability of encountering a hydrate plug.

What do you hope to achieve once you’ve completed your research?

The research itself is an ongoing journey. We’ve had a number of achievements so far in that we’ve been able to look at specific problems either solely within academia or more commonly with industrial partners and reach solutions or milestones for those problems. Of course there’s always the need to get into deeper water and harsher operating environments and with that comes the requirement of new technology. It’s kind of a story that keeps unfolding in new and different dimensions. Our goal would be to see a generation of technologies that allow production in deepwater and ultra deepwater environments. We’ve geared the laboratory at UWA to accomplish that and we hope to deliver the information required to make those decisions and empower some of those designs. If we could see the technology and this research being applied in that context, that would be a tremendous success for both us and the broader community.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Every day is a challenge, simply because of the research. Every day when we walk into the lab there’s always a challenge to go beyond the data point, to go beyond the binary ‘yes or no’ and try to understand ‘why’ from a fundamental perspective so that we can better inform ourselves as to what the next experimental step should be. These are some of the most complex systems on the face of the planet. When we talk about moving hydrate particles and water droplets in an oil and gas environment, the flow dynamics are incredibly complex. Trying to probe one experiment and then unravel what’s happening is a tremendous challenge. We have a wonderful team here that’s geared at unpacking various aspects of that behaviour. The largest challenge is always being one step ahead to understand exactly why we’re seeing this in the laboratory and then knowing, from that data, what would be the next best move.

What is one of the most satisfying parts of your career?

The most satisfying aspect would be watching the students grow and learn as they’re coming into the PhD program and being acquainted with flow assurance, and watching the same spark that we all have with science and technology emerge in the students where they begin questioning their environments and thinking critically about what’s accepted and what could be, and what new and different experiments they could propose to make a contribution. Watching a person transform from an undergraduate scholar to a research scholar is such a rewarding experience.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of getting into engineering academia?

I would encourage them. One of the greatest benefits is being able to work with the students and to see that spark emerge in them. It takes a very patient person who is dedicated to research. That’s something that’s honed through the PhD experience at UWA, as well as post-doctoral appointments after that, which allows the person to see new and different ways of thinking. It’s an incredibly rewarding career but it takes a lot of time. You have to be 150 per cent dedicated to it, but I wouldn’t have chosen any other path.