Deep water, the final frontier

Image used with courtesy of NASA

The Colossal Squid can’t go that deep, nor can most submarines. The pressures are so great that a house brick would be crushed before it hit bottom

If you saw the recent blockbuster Gravity, you’ll have been impressed all over again by just how inhospitable space is, not only for people but for expensive equipment as well. What I’m waiting for, though, is the film set at an ultra-deepwater hydrocarbon installation, because conditions three kilometers under the sea are every bit as challenging.

The Colossal Squid can’t go that deep, nor can most submarines. The pressures are so great that a house brick would be crushed before it hit bottom. It’s a highly corrosive environment, cold, and pitch black. There are things that live there, but we have only a partial picture of what. Unprotected, the attractive Sandra Bullock, who plays the heroine in Gravity, would survive for about as long as she would in space.

It’s not a place most people would be eager to get to, but our customers must go there because that’s where the hydrocarbons are. The “easy oil”, as they say, is gone. Around 40% of oil and gas recovery now comes from offshore, and something like 85% of undiscovered hydrocarbons are in complex settings such as the one I’m describing.

And, if our customers are going there, so are we.

Remote ultra-deepwater operations are an exciting frontier and we’ve launched a major new research and development program to meet the challenge.

ABB is innovating with our customers to venture into new and more extreme subsea frontiers Statoil Subsea Factory (TM) / courtesy of Statoil
ABB is innovating with our customers to venture into new and more extreme subsea frontiersStatoil Subsea Factory (TM) / courtesy of Statoil

Conditions at depths of 3,000m and more put remote process control, automation, monitoring, electrification and wireless transmission at the strategic core of hydrocarbon recovery. That’s because, to state the obvious, if there’s an issue with the equipment at those depths, your engineers cannot jump in the car to take a look.

The cost of getting people to the bottom is prohibitive, and the scope for what can be done from within a specialized deepwater vehicle is limited. Once a piece of equipment is in place, there it must stay, and it must function properly on its own for years.

In the interests of safety, the environment and productivity, all equipment must be kept healthy. Hydrocarbon flow, pressure, well conditions, corrosion and temperature must be monitored as closely as an Olympic athlete’s vital signs during training.

Complex processing equipment must also be watched closely. For this you need data from multiple sensors monitoring rotating speeds, throughput, energy consumption and more, plus the ability to aggregate the data to build a picture, so you can accurately compare what you are seeing to what you should be seeing.

And there is a further step to take. Our oil and gas customers are aiming for one, centralized control centre that pulls in data from all installations around the world. This ‘dashboard’ would not only allow malfunctions to be spotted, it would also track equipment performance trends so that problems can be prevented from happening in the first place. It would allow for strategic planning of maintenance and investment to minimize production downtime and extend the production lifecycle.

To a large extent the data for a workable dashboard is already there. Where it becomes interesting is combining data from multiple sources to create the big picture.

Is all this a vision of the future? Yes, but the future has begun.

One of our customers Statoil has already outlined its vision for taking all hydrocarbon processing down to the sea bed, and has set itself a goal of developing a complete “subsea factory” by 2020.

As a first step, Statoil has set out to establish sea-floor compression systems in the Åsgard field of the North Sea. We are working with them to develop transmission, distribution and drive systems to power and control pumps and compressors at depths of 3,000m.

Drawing on all areas of ABB expertise we are developing the systems for these extreme conditions. The approach so far has pushed the boundaries in a thrilling way. Transformers, switchgear  and drives will be enclosed in liquid filled, pressure compensated tanks, with components tested extensively under the full pressure to which they’ll be exposed. Separate pumps and compressors will be powered by a single cable over distances of up to 600km, which could save the operator more than $500 million compared to a scenario with multiple cables.

That’s just one example. For all our customers, the challenge is clear: how to optimize recovery, reduce the scale of capital expenditures, and do it with maximum safety and reliability – all in ever deeper water and more remote locations. Ultra-deepwater is as much the final frontier as space is, and we’re already exploring it.

I hope you share my excitement about our vision for the future. Where do you think we are heading in oil and gas? What challenges will our customers face and how can we help them?

Image credit: NASA

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About the author

Per-Erik Holsten

I lead ABB’s Business Unit for oil, gas and chemicals in the Industrial Automation division. I started my career in ABB in 1986 as an engineer and has managed businesses of various sizes, most recently as Local Division Manager for Process Automation and Local Business Unit Manager for Oil, Gas and Petrochemicals in Norway. I am married with three children. When I’m not working or spending time with my family, I enjoy making music, attending music festivals and running.
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