We are the followers of Azat Mirzajanzade’s school of scientific engineering

In an interview to OGJRussia, Gazprom Neft Director for Technology Mars Khasanov, a student of Azat Mirzajanzade, shared his memories about his teacher, told us what The Field of Mars is about, and described how the scientific engineering emerged in the petroleum industry.

OIL&GAS JOURNAL  

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Mars Magnavievich, on the 90th anniversary of Azat Mirzajanzade we commemorate him as an outstanding scientist of the petroleum industry, a talented teacher who trained hundreds of students. You are one of them. Could you tell us, please, how you met him for the first time, how it all began?

– In 1973, I was student at Department of Physics of the Bashkir State University in Ufa. The father of my classmate Vitaly Baykov (we are still good friends, now he is a Doctor of Science, Professor) was on friendly terms with Azat Khalilovich Mirzajanzade. At that time, Azat Mirzajanzade worked in Azerbaijan and was simultaneously head of the laboratory at VNIIneft in Moscow, the central research institute of the Soviet oil industry. In addition, Mirzajanzade always had close ties with all regional oil and gas centers of gravity: in Western Siberia, the Chechnya and Ingushetia region, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and in some other countries. But I think that he had particularly warm relations with Bashkiria. But my personal feeling suggests that his heart turned more to our Bashkirian health resort Yumatovo known for treating patients with kumis (a dairy product made of horse milk).

For as long as I knew Azat Mirzajanzade, a never-ending stream of young talents was always raging around him. Every year he would recruit dozens of people as his graduate students, where they would receive their PhD’s, and he would recruit new ones. I still remember the first time we met. He immediately gave us a book on information theory because even back then he was interested in the processes that today we call “digitalization”.

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Academician Azat Khalilovich Mirzajanzade

The next time we met after I graduated from the University and started working at the Ufa Chemical Institute (now the Ufa Institute of Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences – ed. note). I almost had my dissertation on physical chemistry ready to be defended, but to be honest I didn’t see myself as a chemist in the future. After a long conversation with Azat Mirzajanzade, he made a decision to invite me to his graduate school. In fact, this invitation determined my whole career.

On a recommendation from Azat Mirzajanzade, I was given a position at the Ufa Petroleum Institute (UPI, now the Ufa State Petroleum Technical University –ed. note), the Department of Higher Mathematics (later I worked there for 10 years), and from there I went to his graduate school in Baku.

How did your work begin when you got into Azat Mirzajanzade’s graduate school?

– I was 27 years old then, and I seemed very old to myself. It was not surprising, for Azat Khalilovich got his Doctorate of Science when he was 28! And I was just a graduate student, and a new comer to the oil industry.

That’s why I put a lot of effort into learning the ropes quickly. At that time, I received a great deal of help from Ramil Nazifovich Bakhtizin, a graduate student of an “earlier draft”, the founder of the “Ufa colony” in Baku, now a Doctor of Science, Professor, Rector of the Ufa Petroleum University. At some point, we began taking part in discussions of almost every graduate work and used to spend half a day in Azat Khalilovich’ office. And he worked in a rigid rhythm: did not make any lunch breaks and always had a powerful air conditioner blowing away. So I remember those times as ‘the period of hunger and cold’ but, of course, they were happy times (smiles).

And of course, I still remember the libraries in Baku: one of them, named after Mirza Akhundov (now the National Library of Azerbaijan), was among the three largest libraries in the Soviet oil industry. The other was located at AzINEFTEKHIM (the Azerbaijan State University of Oil and Petroleum Industry) and was also very numerous because the Institute was established as early as the 1920s. I studied a huge number of articles and books that still help me. So the environment itself, and the fact that I started working in a team led by Mirzajanzade, became his disciple, changed my mind abruptly.

Azat Khalilovich raised and gathered around him a huge group of like-minded followers. About 400 Candidates of Science and 100 Doctors of Science – it was a real scientist factory. And he managed to ‘filter’ people in such a manner that in the end very few of his disciples conflicted with each other while he was alive and after his death. Of course, I am not talking about minor scientific disputes, although sometimes extremely hot.

Another feature of how Mirzajanzade worked with young scientists: he could give the same topic for research to several students in different cities. He believed it was more efficient that instead of one original solution two or more could be suggested. Sometimes we did not understand this approach, but he told us: “We'll figure it out later who is going to include this problem in their thesis, but now let’s get it done!”

What was the most peculiar feature of Mirzajanzade’s work methods?

– Azat Khalilovich had a unique system of education and scientific research. He was a man of encyclopedic knowledge; in his mind all the sciences were sorted out in order, he knew perfectly well how they intertwine with each other, saw their synergy. For example, he combined achievements in the field of new superplastic materials with applied mathematics, and used it to solve problems in the oil and gas industry.

An integral part of these methods is the immediate connection with practice. After all, Baku is one of the oldest oil production centers, and AzINEFTEKHIM was equipped with a large laboratory facility for testing. Azat Khalilovich would set tasks for us, then we would discuss possible solutions together. He always kept the research process under control, at any stage he could correct us if we deviated from the right path but all his corrections were very reasonable. He was a great speaker: he spoke figuratively, used lots of aphorisms, expressed his thoughts in a simple, clear and multifaceted manner, with humor. His lectures were outstanding!

I was always amazed at his memory. If some problem has already been solved somewhere he could say, for example: “Find the Applied Mechanics and Physics magazine for 1970, issue such-and-such, author such-and-such.” And here you are, it was exactly as he said!

These are the basics of its methodology: combination of scientific disciplines and approaches, encyclopedic knowledge, teamwork, brainstorming ideas in discussions.

He clearly understood the laws of nature in general, not only physical and chemical but also biological and social processes, history and culture, and applied all this in analysis of oil industry problems. He was a very musical person, he knew and loved classical music and used to take us to the opera and ballet performances, sometimes even by force. I really became the lover of classical music after that. Until now, I am convinced that our teacher was like the great scientists of the Renaissance and Modern Age: Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein...

He constantly worked with huge volumes of scientific literature! In Baku, Ufa and other cities we regularly paid ‘solemn’ visits to bookstores. We went to those bookstores with our bags, to collect the ‘harvest’. And he filled our bags with books as if they were just apples hanging from the tree: took a quick look at the shelf and grabbed the book! And almost half of them he would scan through overnight. Not just scanned, he actually read them, you could tell it by the fact that the book pages were all covered with his notes. And in the morning he would assign us the task that was supposed to be solved by the next day. We were perplexed: how can we do it in one day? Moreover, in his notes there were no hints to help us solve the problem. He just gave us an open task: think about how this and that can be done and applied. Yet, the idea would come in one day, or overnight. At times, when it seemed that we failed to find the right answer, it would emerge literally at the moment when we opened the door to his office. But this is what his method was: make our brains work at full capacity, under pressure, with harsh time limits and see if we can solve the problem or not...

Thanks to all these qualities, Azat Mirzajanzade managed to find new approaches in science, raised questions in a way that no one had ever raised them: innovatively, revolutionarily! By the way, in many respects the petroleum industry is only now coming to understand the importance of some of these dimensions and the results obtained by Azat Mirzajanzade.

People recall him as a very interesting person. What his other qualities do you remember?

– A striking feature of his character was the ability to unite people. At the end of the week we used to visit him at his home where he instilled in us the culture of Oriental feast. Traditionally, he was the soul of the party, and all the roles were distributed between us. There was a certain sequence of toasts: the mandatory toast to the health of all people present, for their parents, then one of the most reputable students gave a toast to the health of the teacher. Azat Khalilovich was not married, had no children; he lived with his mother and sister. Apparently, he treated all his disciples as his own kids.

He was a man of principle. All articles that were written with his participation, he always read very carefully, never allowed to use his name without his consent. This integrity and independence was expressed even in minor details. For example, if you, say, bought him a pie he immediately gave you the money back even if you refused to take it.

He was a person of complex nature, and you could easily fall out of his favor. For example, I fell out of it twice. Once he did not call me for six months, although I did not even understand what my guilt was. But talented people are always difficult to deal with. He always displayed strong principles when dealing with people in high places, governmental officials: spoke out what he thought without fear, in a straightforward manner, sometimes even with asperity, and only his outstanding talent and scientific merit kept him out of trouble.

He was an ardent patriot of his country, but his patriotism was not plain, it was multifaceted. He gave a great deal of thought about the fate of the USSR and Azerbaijan. He was invited many times to work in Moscow and Novosibirsk but he would not leave his home town and stayed in Baku. He was a true patriot of science: keen to explore, set exciting tasks, discover new ways.

What do you think the main achievements of Mirzajanzade’s school are?

– Generally speaking, the main achievement of his school is the creation of a system of scientific petroleum engineering as we know it today. It is about drawing a holistic picture of the petroleum field based on crumbs of information that we obtain from seismic surveys and drilling. Then, it is the use of new materials in drilling, production and transportation of oil and gas; materials with unusual, non-linear and non-equilibrium properties.

One should understand that at that time we were developing quite productive reservoirs; it is only in recent years that we have approached low permeability reservoirs but the basis for this approach was laid by the research performed by his school.

Mirzajanzade took part in the development of many oil fields in Western Siberia and other regions of the Soviet Union. At that time, the Soviet petroleum industry started developing large oil-gas-condensate fields, and Azat Khalilovich, among other things, created a theory for their development which was successfully applied in practice.

He was also very knowledgeable in practical issues of the oil production process because even when he was a student he worked as an apprentice to the driller. Being motivated by his academic supervisor, he began to write his first scientific papers on this subject, and then engaged in the issues of nonlinear mechanics. After all, drilling muds are a very interesting mattter. On the one hand, you need to pump the mud through the pipes to a depth of more than 2 km, which means that it must be fluid. But on the other hand, the mud is supposed to wash drilling cuttings out of the borehole, so it must be viscous. It means that we need to have a fluid with non-linear properties. In this area, Mirzajanzade revealed interesting regularities and composed the fundamental equations. As a result of this work, at the age of 28, he defended his doctoral dissertation on the movement of non-linear fluids in pipes and porous media.

Were his further studies also related to oil and gas reservoirs?

– Working with the reservoir, we are well aware that we know almost nothing about it, we play blind with the nature and the nature plays with us. Here Mirzajanzade’s school opened up new dimensions related to the games theory and the theory of decision-making in a context of uncertainty. Another area of his research is the theory of ill-posed problems. These are all very complex areas of mathematical modeling.

Azat Khalilovich introduced us to cybernetics which he got interested in back in the 1950s. Before him, very few people used cybernetics in the oil industry. In the 1950-60s, people often talked about artificial intelligence, robots, there was a great enthusiasm fueled by science fiction. However, in the 1980s this aspiration went down since many of the things that had been talked about were not implemented.

Unlike anywhere else, the school of Azat Mirzajanzade had a clear understanding of how to use cybernetics, the theory of operations, neural networks, expert systems. Working on the problems of decision-making under uncertainty, we created approaches which today are called ‘agile’ methods, and which here in the Gazprom Neft Science and Technology Center we have long been using to create software products.

What features Mirzajanzade’s school is that under his supervision scientists began taking into account and simulating nonlinear effects. This is a difficult task because for linear equations solutions are known while non-linear problems do not have obvious solutions; they have to be found every time in a new way, so it is a big scientific work. That’s why he took physicists and mathematicians and turned them into petroleum engineers. Or, on the contrary, he took the most talented petroleum engineers and turned them into physicists.

Today we apply conceptual engineering in oil production which requires our ability to model the flow of fluids underground, in wells, in pipelines, in oil, gas and water treatment units. So, Mirzajanzade created, in essence, a school of such science engineers, and we are members of this school.

They say, Mirzajanzade called the area of your research activities ‘the Field of Mars’. Could you tell us why?

– In the 1980s, attempts were made in a number of areas to apply in practice non-linear theories (solutions, fractals, deterministic chaos). Azat Khalilovich, who always closely followed achievements of the fundamental sciences, was well aware that methods and approaches of these theories can be of great benefit to the oil industry.

So, if we have non-linear effects then chaotic motion may occur in oil and gas production systems even when the motion is subject to a certain system of equations. But such chaos (it is called deterministic chaos) is controllable. When Azat Khalilovich gave me a book on this subject (he gave this book to many other people too, as usual) I found the way how it can be used in petroleum engineering and determine systems where this chaos appears. For example, in the gas-lift oil production system unstable conditions may occur in the well that are inefficient in terms of working agent consumption. From the scientific standpoint, the problem is to derive equations that can describe such effects. They are intended to give an opportunity to understand how to get rid of these instabilities, turn the chaos into an orderly movement. Conversely, if you need the chaos, for example, to wash out drill cuttings from the borehole then this chaos can be created. So Azat Khalilovich called my work in the field of deterministic chaos ‘the field of Mars’. I should admit, I was very proud then for I always wanted to surprise my teacher.

And back in the 1990s you were able to apply these approaches in practice, weren’t you?

– Having defended my Candidate of Science dissertation, I returned to Ufa and became an Associate Professor; then, in 1992, I obtained my Doctor of Science degree, also in Baku, and became a Professor of the Ufa State Petroleum Technical University, and then decided to come back to practical work. To this end, I moved to the Ufa Research Center of one of the country’s largest oil companies – Yuganskneftegaz. I took the position of the head of the mathematical modeling laboratory at this Research Center and began to apply the methods that we developed under the guidance of Azat Khalilovich. This gave us a good start! Imagine that you have gold coins in your sack or trump cards in your deck and you pull them out one by one – here is an article, here is a scientific paper, here is a project design document for development of an entire field! The problem was that we did not have sufficient funding to purchase expensive simulation software. But then, instead of buying, we developed such software products ourselves: hired several physicists, mathematicians, wrote our own programs. Then, and it was pretty quick for that time, just in three years, we managed to digitalize all Yuganskneftegaz’ assets data. I am recalling that at some point the task was to make a full-scale analysis of the development system of one of Yuganskneftegaz’ fields. For two weeks we worked almost round the clock and finally came up with a couple of weighty volumes of documentation. So it was another good demonstration of methods and approaches developed and applied by Azat Khalilovich Mirzajanzade.

Do you keep in touch with other students of his school?

– I communicate with some of them, or hear once in a while about others. Most of them work in our industry in Russia and abroad, including the Middle East.

Are there any other scientific schools like the one headed by Mirzajanzade in our petroleum industry?

– It is believed that every academician has a school of his own. But I do not know any other school in the petroleum industry that would be so strong, especially with such a close connection with production assets. There was something similar only in the defense and airspace industries. And it should be mentioned that the school of Mirzajanzade has been preserved and is developing further. I consider myself its representative as well as my graduate students – I had about 40 of them.

How can a person become your graduate student?

– A good diploma and a strong desire is enough. But keeping this position is a more difficult task: you will need to perform, show some results. We hire University graduates, a lot of physicists and mathematicians. First of all, we accept graduates from the MIPT, St. Petersburg State University, St. Petersburg Polytechnical University, Tyumen and Bashkiria State Universities, Ufa State Petroleum Technical University. These are the Universities that have the required competence in physics, mechanics or applied mathematics.

What do you think Mirzajanzade would say if he looked at the successors of his school?

– I think he would say that he was right, and we are moving in the right direction. Let me repeat myself: in everything he did, he was ahead of time. Big data, making decisions with insufficient information, cybernetics, digitalization, machine learning. New materials, superconductivity, super-viscosity. In general – system engineering. In the sense of application, it is such an engineering when (I will take an example from everyday life) you can drive by the newly built road without problems for at least five years because everything is taken into account and thought out, and the most modern technologies are applied. Unfortunately, now it is not always the case. Without a systematic approach to projects, our vast natural resources will be slipping through our fingers like sand. But we are working to develop centers for applying a systematic approach to oil production. Now, in the era of “difficult oil”, it is especially important and vital. The legacy and memory of our teacher, Azat Khalilovich Mirzajanzade, is a reliable support along the way.

 

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