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Simulation, utilisation and transformation – the road to innovation

Probably never before in living memory has humankind had to adapt and adopt so quickly to so many changing circumstances. With the global population now at 7bn and rising, governments and energy companies have to think and act out of the box to keep the lights on, provide food, transportation and to keep industries running. Ongoing innovation is essential and, fortunately, something humans are rather good at. On three continents we have selected recent examples of simulation innovation, utilisation innovation and transformation innovation.

In Australia, subsea pipeline design can be challenging due to the seabed’s instability, especially in cyclone conditions. In November 2011, a team of engineers from the University of Western Australia (UWA) won the Woodside Oil and Gas Encouragement Award in 2011’s Western Australia Innovator of the Year Awards. The engineering team’s winning project is a giant flume that is capable of simulating the effect of cyclones on the seabed so that new designs for more stable oil and gas pipelines that can better withstand the effects of storms on the seabed can be created. Designed and built by UWA, the flume is a closed-loop flume. Project leader Winthrop Professor Liang Cheng said in a statement that the flume has, “A base of natural seabed soil containing 60t of water which can be rapidly pumped back and forth simulating the underwater conditions during cyclones.” The facility went into operation in 2010 at UWA’s Shenton Park site. The Large O-tube Facility is part of a long-term UWA research initiative, which is partly-funded by Woodside and Chevron. Cheng said that compared to other waters in the world the Australian region posed significant challenges, “This is due to the need for large diameter gas trunklines to cross the continental shelf, which is covered with mobile sediment and subject to cyclones,” said Cheng. “The results will improve our assessments of pipeline stability and more efficient and safer design of WA’s offshore infrastructure.”

From space to oil and gas survival

In the US, Raytheon Technical Services Company LLC (RTSC), a subsidiary of Raytheon Company and PetrofacTraining Services, a member of the Petrofac group, say they have entered into a strategic partnership so that oil and gas survival training can take place at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre (JSC) underwater facility in Houston, Texas. In 2010, NASA selected Raytheon to operate the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) under the NBL/Space Vehicle Mockup Operations Contract and also allowed the company to use the facility for non-government purposes when NASA did not need to use it. “The Raytheon team has managed NASA’s NBL training facility since 2003, and has for more than 50 years provided high-consequence training solutions to NASA,” said RTSC president, John Harris in a statement. “Together, Raytheon and Petrofac will offer similar training solutions to the oil and gas industry customers, who also require a focus on safe operations and mission assurance.”

Training will commence in December 2011 and will provide trainees with what RTSC and Petrofac say is one of the most realistic training environments in the world for water survival. The NBL pool holds 6.2mgal of water and is just over 12m deep. The two companies confirmed that initially, the facility will focus on delivering three core training programmes for the oil and gas industry, helicopter underwater egress training, basic offshore safety induction and emergency training. Later, the partnership will expand into emergency response and crisis management (ERCM) training making use of the NBL’s on-site test control rooms. “We are already seeing demand for survival and ERCM training outpace supply,” said Paul Groves, managing director of Petrofac Training Services in a statement.

Qatar’s GTS move

In the Middle East, Qatar, which with 900tnft3 of natural gas is already one of the world’s major LNG exporters, is moving into gas to solids (GTS). Qatalum, a joint venture between Qatar Petroleum and Hydro, says that it will be the largest aluminium plant ever launched with the capacity in its first phase of 585,000t of primary aluminium, which the company says, will be shipped as value-added aluminium casthouse products. To ensure a stable power supply, Qatalum will have its own dedicated 1350MW power plant. Speaking at the 20th World Petroleum Congress in December 2011, Qatalum’s CEO Tom Petter Johansen said, “Aluminium has a notably positive economic effect locally, regionally and internationally, as it is used in a wide variety of sectors, such as construction, transport and marine industries. GCC countries are rich in the raw materials required to produce aluminium, which also lowers the production cost in the region significantly.” Johansen went on to say that the company was committed to Qatar’s shift in focus to GTS to be successful, “We are committed not only to ensuring that we produce the highest quality primary aluminium, but also to ensuring that the progress we have made thus far is sustainable,” said Johansen. “To this end, we have entered into a number of partnerships and agreements that will ensure the industry’s continued growth, as well as build the foundation for a knowledge-based industry that is sustainable over the long term, and will provide Qatar with economic diversity and sustainability. Our vision is to become a sustainable economic catalyst, using Qatar’s gas energy to create a valuable commodity – aluminium.”

In Johansen’s remarks particularly about Qatar shifting focus to GTS one may take the view that Qatar is probably well aware that while LNG is good today, the boom times may not last, a sentiment that has been echoed often lately. Although, given the mayhem that has been 2011 one cannot hope to predict what may come about in 2012 and if there are more game-changing events yet to occur. Nevertheless, with the abundance of natural gas that it has it is probably wise for Qatar to have an alternative focus. And, if LNG stays the course a little longer than running both focuses will do no harm to Qatar’s economy at all.

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