LSU AgCenter’s ‘hole-plugging’ technology creates new business, jobs for Louisiana

News Release Distributed 08/04/09

A new technology developed by an LSU AgCenter researcher has serendipitously found its way into the oil industry, resulting in a new company and the reinvigoration of an existing company in Louisiana.

The patented process, developed by Qinglin Wu in the School of Renewable Natural Resources, involves making material from recycled plastics, including used motor oil containers and wood waste, that can be used in oil and gas drilling to prevent the drilling fluid from seeping into the environment.

This material, which has been trademarked as Tiger Bullets, are marketed to oil companies by a start-up company aptly called Hole Pluggers, which is based in New Iberia, La.

“We’re recycling the oil containers back into the oil business,” said Tom Parker, one of the owners of Hole Pluggers, who licensed the technology from the AgCenter. “That’s one of the advantages of our product.”

Tiger Bullets are manufactured at Wallace Moulding & Millworks of Columbia, La., a company that also makes the parts for windows, doors and cabinets for houses. With the decline in the housing market, Dan Wallace, the owner, had been in search of new business and, after consulting with Wu, had invested in equipment to move into the manufacture of plastic lumber. Then along came Tiger Bullets.

“Talk about being in the right place at the right time,” Wallace said. “We were already set up with equipment that can manufacture this material.”

And he was able to hire back some of the 30 employees he’d had to lay off and hopes to have all 45 of his employees back – and possibly more employees – by the first of the year.

“This is another success story of how technology developed at a university can transform an existing business and industry, leading to new jobs and growth in the state’s economy,” said Wade Baumgartner, associate director of the LSU AgCenter’s Office of Intellectual Property.

And here’s how serendipity played a role in the unfolding of this story.

On March 30, 2008, Parker, an entrepreneur in the oil business, saw an article in the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper about Wu and his wood-plastic composites research. Wu is the Roy O. Martin Professor of Composites and Engineered Wood Products at the AgCenter.

The article described how Wu was using discarded motor oil containers in combination with cellulosic fibers, which absorbed the residual oil, to create strong composite materials.

Wu had been conducting this research at the request of Dan Cadigan, a senior official with BP Global Supply Chain in Port Allen, La., who had contacted Wu a year before, ironically, after reading an article in the Advocate about Wu’s research.

“Wu’s research sounded like it offered the perfect solution to recycling oil containers,” Cadigan said.

Wu has spent his research career creating wood-plastic composites using waste products from the agricultural and forestry industry including wood chips, sugarcane bagasse and rice hulls.

In 2006, Wu’s research team received an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy to create composite products that can be commercialized in Louisiana. Wallace had been one of the Louisiana business owners Wu had wooed with ideas for new products.

In reading about Wu’s and Cadigan’s project, Parker saw immediate application for the composite material that included plastic oil containers as an ingredient in the drilling fluid “mud” used in drilling for oil and gas. He himself had been trying to develop the perfect mud additive that could effectively seal off fractures in the earth and permeable formations.

The drilling mud both lubricates and cools the drill bit as it goes down into the earth, sometimes as far as 30,000 feet or more. Ideally, the mud comes back up with the drill cuttings after the tunnel is dug. But when the mud seeps away, that’s called “lost circulation” and is a huge, expensive problem.

“This costs money for the oil and gas industry, and it’s not good for the environment,” Wu said.

Other drilling fluid ingredients on the market are not as good at filling and sealing off cracks and porous areas as Tiger Bullets, Parker said. One reason is Wu’s patented process allows the material to be custom-made into multiple-sized particles to fit the particular geology of the drilling operation. The varying-sized material can immediately seal off and plug any size fissure or surface porosity, preventing seepage.

Wu’s material has been used successfully with all three types of drilling fluid – synthetic, water-based and oil-based. Parker has tested the Tiger Bullets in oil drilling operations in the mountains of Colorado, the plains of Arkansas and off-shore in the Gulf of Mexico, and they perform well.

“Wu did a great job of simulating the effects of drilling in the laboratory. His technology came off the drawing board and worked in the real world – better than expectations,” Parker said.

Tiger Bullets’ environmental advantage is another selling point. Although Wu’s technology can use any kind of plastic waste in the material, used plastic motor oil containers work perfectly.

“There are few current uses for the oil container plastics, and they are very expensive to get rid of,” Wu said. “This is not a problem with our process because the material is converted to a green, proprietary blend of materials to make a lost circulation material that does not contain any free oil.”

Cadigan said Louisiana produces more oil containers than probably any other state. So having them come back to the state after they’ve been used and create new business and jobs is the perfect “cradle to cradle” scenario.

Cadigan credits Kelsey Short with the Louisiana Economic Development office with helping connect Wallace with the Northeast Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, which provided some funding for Wallace’s new equipment.

Like the rest of the economy, the oil business is down right now. But it will bounce back and bring with it a bright future for Hole Pluggers.

“The LSU AgCenter has a history of conducting research with practical application for industry,” said David Boethel, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for research. “This is another example.”

And both Parker and Cadigan agree it pays to read the newspaper.

Linda Foster Benedict

8/4/2009 7:22:47 PM
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