Twenty thousand leagues under the sea – 2020 version

The vast deep sea has always fascinated people.

If Jules Verne had written his famous book "Twenty thousand leagues under the sea" 150 years later, he would have included some subsea factories.

If Jules Verne had written “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea” 150 years later, he would have included some subsea factories when he approaches the Norwegian coast towards the end of the book.

Jules Verne wrote his famous book about the same time that the world’s first commercial oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, USA. The book was published in 1870 and at that time the world’s ocean depths were still almost unexplored and certainly not used to extract oil resources.

There are limits to how many parallels can be drawn between a book from the 1800s and modern subsea technology. But there is no doubt that Jules Verne was fascinated by modern science. The French author studied law, but could just as well have been scientist or engineer.

In several areas, he was far ahead of his time. Many of his visions and innovations have since become reality with surprising precision. He sent people to the moon and designed propeller-driven airships. Long before anything resembling the battle about climate change, many people believe that Verne realized that the world needed a cleaner energy source than coal and pointed to technology similar to the one we have in today’s hydrogen cars. And that’s just to mention a few of his realizations,

When the Frenchman had to find an energy source for the propulsion system of the submarine Nautilus in “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea”, he chose electricity. There are differing opinions on how the electric propulsion system worked, but according to the book Nautilus magically managed to utilize seawater to generate enough power to drive the propeller which measured about six meters in diameter.

Even if this vision has not come true, there are at least solutions for power transmission over long distances below the surface and in deep waters. There are already projects on the seabed that require significant electrical power, such as the seawater pumps on the ‘Tyrihans’ field. Soon subsea compressors at ‘Asgard’ and ‘Gullfaks’ will get a power supply equivalent to the consumption of some 10,000 Norwegian households.

But it does not stop there. ABB is already working with Statoil to help ensure that their vision of complete oil and gas producing facilities on the seabed becomes a reality. The challenge is that pumps, compressors and separation systems require large amounts of electricity, totaling perhaps as much as a city the size of Stavanger in Norway. The power must also be controlled so that the electrical motors on the seabed operate at optimal energy efficiency.

Subsea power supply makes the oil and gas industry more environmentally friendly and profitable. This means that smaller fields are viable and it’s possible to increase recovery rate from existing fields and and produce oil and gas from fields where surface structures are not an option. ABB contributes by developing systems for energy transmission over long distances and rugged products for depths up to 3000 meters.

Statoil hopes that a complete subsea factory, with reliable power supply from a surface installation or from shore, is a reality by 2020 – the same year as “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea” celebrates its 150th anniversary. The author Jules Verne could probably be called a “friend of Norway” after several visits and diligent review of the country in books and articles. Whether he, today, would have been for or against oil and gas production we do not know, but we’re pretty confident that he would have been fascinated by the technology behind it and maybe even have been a contributing innovator himself.

Photo showing a cable simulator
To provide installations on the seabed with reliable power requires many years of research and development. This picture shows a cable simulator that was built by Statoil and ABB at Kårstø, Norway to simulate how the the power supply to compressors on the sea floor of the Åsgard field will work. Now, the project is close to realization.
Categories and Tags
About the author

Comment on this article