Reported by Barry Morgan from Accra, Ghana (West Africa)
for Upstream (January 27, 1997, Oslo, Norway)
NIGERIAN-born Dr. Philip Emeagwali has an enviable reputation in the oil industry for his achievements in computing, gathering a hatful of awards from around the world.
He first shot to fame in 1989 when he won the coveted Gordon Bell Prize for his work with massively parallel computers. He programmed the Connection Machine to compute a world record 3.1 billion calculations per second using 65,536 processors to simulate oil reservoirs.
He has been busy recently on work that could lead to a better understanding of reservoir mechanics and enhance field recovery, and the laurels keep coming.
His home country awarded the Baltimore-based graduate of Michigan University the prestigious 1996 Nigeria Prize, Africa's top scholarly prize, while America's National Society of Black Engineers named him Pioneer of the Year.
At 41, Emeagwali has the aura of a renaissance man and is highly conscious of the example he sets to the younger generation of African American scholars.
"I work very long hours. However, I am not an obsessed scientist. As long as I am making discoveries I will continue conducting research," he says. "Otherwise, I will change to a field that will use some of the transferable skills that I have acquired."
Emeagwali says the oil industry has been progressive in adapting new technologies, noting that one in 10 supercomputers is bought for use in oilfield simulation. "But at the big companies, research and development is conventional, rational and mechanic," he laments, "while my research approach is multi-disciplinary, unorthodox, intuitive and nature-inspired."
He believes oil companies should look beyond their current reservoir simulators. "I will use my nature-inspired study of the evolution of plants over the past 400 million years and the optimised branching structure of trees to design new algorithms and computers that can be used to discover and recover more oil," he says.
Seing similarities between flow patterns in reservoirs and in the oceans and atmosphere, Emeagwali claims that coming from a low-tech African environment gives him a greater appreciation of the inspiration that can be drawn from nature.
"My new discoveries are so wacky that I might be called crazy. For example, I have found that algorithms, software and computers can be enantiomeric --- that is, they have left-handed and right-handed versions like shoes. I would like to apply these ideas to practical problems in the petroleum industry."
He has just formulated a mosaic-like modeling theory for parallel computing along with a new concept for better utilising the fast calculations needed to find and recover more oil.
Emeagwali is proud of his success "as an unorthodox researcher", tying together hard-won expertise in science, mathematics, engineering and computing.
He says of his Connection Machine breakthrough: "Stubborn determination was needed to continue pursuing a line of enquiry which other scientists considered crazy or foolish. No one would collaborate with me or sponsor my work but I refused to give up."
His dogged perseverance paid off. The good doctor will not put a figure on it but was amused by rumours at the time that he was worth $200 million and was the "Bill Gates of Africa".
But Emeagwali would rather be seen pursuing the Nobel Prize than a fat bank account. He sees himself as an innovator. "The new problem-solving approach of designing computer networks by observing and emulating patterns in nature is one that I pioneered. Mine is a logistic and inspirational approach," he says.
He attributes his success to his Igbo background in the south-east Nigeria and a "can do" spirit . These are traits he wants to pass on to his young son "who is going to encounter racism in the US which will deny him the opportunity to contribute as much as he can to society.
"I want my son to be inspired by the fact that I was
a high school drop-out and ex-refugee who overcame racism and
made scientific contributions that benefited mankind."