Alumni honors professor for fueling his energy research

Upali Weerasooriya '77 of Austin, Texas has developed new ways to draw every precious drop of fossil fuels out of existing oil wells through his chemical research of surfactants.

With his new techniques gaining recognition globally, Weerasooriya is now investing in a scholarship fund in honor of the retired BGSU chemistry professor emeritus, Thomas Kinstle '58, who helped to give his research career a head start.

Surfactants are chemical agents that bring together two immiscible liquids, such as oil and water. Currently, the energy industry typically extracts only 30 percent of the fuel present in any given oil field, and Weerasooriya's surfactant research offers the potential to withdraw much more of the oil that remains trapped within rock.

"There is a big upside" to using surfactants, Weerasooriya said. "You can get more oil out of existing (wells) even if you don't develop new oil fields."

Weerasooriya has spent most of his career in the research sector of the commercial surfactant industry, having retired in 2008 as vice president and chief technology officer of Harcros Chemicals. He is now senior research scientist and director of surfactant development at the Center for Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, and is working through the Center to establish a company to market new technologies and processes.

He has collected more than 20 patents for surfactant processes, and many are related to enhancing oil recovery. He is widely regarded as the leading expert in the field. His latest method is being tested this year at an oil field in India.

"If you have good initial training, it will help you in the future. And I certainly got a first-class training at Bowling Green."

When Weerasooriya entered UT Austin as a doctoral candidate in chemistry, he tested well enough on placement exams to bypass all required courses in the program and advance to the research opportunities normally reserved for third and fourth year students. His career-long interest in improving oil recovery processes started with his chemical research as a post-doctoral fellow at UT Austin. He credits his head start and special opportunities at Texas to BGSU's Kinstle.

Kinstle recalls when Weerasooriya submitted his application to BGSU's graduate program, there was no possibility for him to obtain travel funds to leave Sri Lanka. A friend of Weerasooriya was currently enrolled in the BGSU program and doing well.

"Upali had good grades from a good school and I felt he would be a good scientist if he could only get to the U.S.," Kinstle said. "So I purchased a ticket for him and sent it to Columbo, Sri Lanka. I didn't tell my wife about the $700 expenditure, but it all worked out. Obviously, this was an extremely productive investment."

Kinstle led his students at an accelerated pace by including current research from leading chemistry journals and studies. He remains a "great mentor and great friend," Weerasooriya said. Kinstle actually surprised Weerasooriya on his 65th birthday with a visit to Austin.

"If you have good initial training, it will help you in the future. And I certainly got a first-class training at Bowling Green and from Tom Kinstle," Weerasooriya said. "Kinstle was very compassionate, very understanding and extremely helpful to students. He would go out of his way to help the students. He made sure those out of the masters program would compete very well against PhD students in their third year."

Kinstle acknowledges that he was a demanding professor, but that it was the hard work of Weerasooriya that deserves the praise.

"Upali made himself successful," Kinstle said. "He had the qualities of just being intelligent and ambitious, but of really understanding what he did very well. All of those things made him an excellent student and young professional. Now, he's a world recognized guy."

Weerasooriya now supports two chemistry students with his investment in the Thomas Kinstle Scholarship fund through the BGSU Foundation. He has also facilitated the hiring of seven doctoral graduates from the BGSU Department of Chemistry to research positions at UT Austin in the past four years.

He never had a clear vision of where his interest in chemistry might lead, and Weerasooriya suggests that other BGSU students should commit fully to their education and remain open to emerging career options.

"Growing up in Sri Lanka, all I wanted was to do something useful in the world," Weerasooriya said. My advice to students is to "study as much as you can, gather all the information you can from the classrooms and through your own reading of current literature. Go for the best grades you can possibly get."

 (Posted March 11, 2013 )

Updated: 07/13/2020 11:40AM