The Silver City, they call it; Aberdeen, built from granite and shining from the copious Scottish rain. But it is not silver that has made the city’s fortune. It is oil.
Sitting on the northeast coast of Scotland and facing the North Sea, Aberdeen is the centre of the UK’s oil industry, providing it with another nickname: the Dallas of the North. But while it forms the base for the crews heading backwards and forwards to the oil fields and the drilling rigs, it is also a centre for the specialised science and engineering that underpins the recovery of oil and gas from below the sea.
For Prof Albert Rodger, head of the College of Physical Science at the University of Aberdeen, the subsea environment is going to become increasingly important. Earlier this year, he was appointed chief executive of the newly-formed National Subsea Research Institute (NSRI), an industry-academia venture that aims to cement the UK’s position as world leader in the use of technology on the sea floor.
The NSRI, like many other research organisations, is a virtual institution, with assets and expertise spread over several locations. Aberdeen is at its centre, with Rodger heading up the academic work; Robert Gordon University (also in Aberdeen) and the University of Dundee are the other founding partners.
Rodger said: ‘All three institutions are members of the Northern Research Partnership [NRP]. This grouping was set up to bring together the engineering activities of the three universities in a variety of different areas, to pool our strengths. Edinburgh and Glasgow have both formed similar partnerships, which have been successful for them in attracting research funding and projects.’ In the NRP’s case, there are groups focusing on energy and clean technologies, civil engineering and computational systems — all of which have inputs into the NSRI — along with medical technologies and a group focusing on non-linear and complex systems.
The NSRI is different from many other research institutes, however, in that it is very firmly focused on industrial research. Alongside the three universities at the launch was a fourth partner, the industry body Subsea UK, which represents the industries and companies involved in the exploration, production and transport of oil and gas from the North Sea fields. The institute
is very specifically designed to bring the expertise of the universities to bear on the research needs of the industry; blue-sea research, rather than blue-sky. Rodger said: ‘We have industry representatives on the board and they will set the research agenda.’
The industrial representation features heavyweight names: BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Total were on board from the start, along with Subsea 7, Talisman and Technip, with Lloyds Register, Shell and Acergy joining earlier in September 2009; all of the companies contribute both funding and expertise.
Meanwhile, the academic membership has spread beyond Scotland, with the University of Newcastle joining the institute in August 2009. Rodger said: ‘We are keen for any institutions who have expertise to become involved.’
NSRI’s research is focused mainly on the difficulties of extracting oil and gas from dwindling resources. This includes marginal or enhanced oil recovery — the practice of getting more hydrocarbons out of a well that would be deemed ‘empty’ using conventional technology, which can generally extract only around 20-40 per cent of the reserves. Other topics are aimed at recovering oil from sites that would normally be deemed inaccessible, either because the water is too deep for conventional recovery, or the sites are too far away from the oil transport infrastructure.
Rodger said: ‘There are several areas we are looking at in these fields. There is a need for stronger, lighter and easier-to-install materials; we also need to look at fluid dynamics, and we will be doing a lot of work around modelling flow. We have one particular project that is developing multiphase flowmeters to measure the flow of oil and gas in-line; another is looking at the way heavy crude oil flows inside oil wells.’
Projects already underway at the institute include a three-year study on how high-strength steel piping can withstand the stresses and fatigue of being reeled and unreeled into deep water, along with how this affects its corrosion performance when carrying sulphur-containing ‘sour’ gas, and also how it can be welded. Another is concentrating on how the product from oil wells — a complex mixture of oil, gas, hydrocarbon vapours and water — flows through pipes. This is a particularly tricky problem, as the composition of the fluids changes constantly, as do the shape and position of the interfaces between the different non-mixing phases of the mixture and how they interact with the walls of the pipe.
Rodger said: ‘Overall, the research projects will be aligned with the specific needs of the subsea industry. We have identified some of these as fluid recovery at 3,000m of water depth at an economical cost; platform-less oil and gas drilling installations; long-distance tiebacks; subsea processing facilities; and pumping and separation.’
Other projects will tackle upcoming technology trends, such as the move towards autonomous subsea installations, and exploration and production in ever-harsher environments, particularly in the Arctic.
But with Scotland — and particularly the east of Scotland — already recognised as a centre for subsea research, why was there a need to set up the NSRI? Rodger said: ‘The industry is changing and facing new challenges and we need to make sure that the UK keeps abreast of that. The institute will help us to draw up and co-
ordinate a national framework for research, development and implementation of technology, with the effort across academia, industry and the supply chain. We are looking at things that are needed in the medium to long term, over the next 20-30 years.’
It also gives a focus for international collaboration, Rodger added. ‘If research institutions in Europe, the US or elsewhere are looking for subsea expertise, this will be the place to come.’
Part of the institute’s research will look at the characteristics of the sea bed, and Rodger believes it is likely that there might be link-ups with oceanographers, such as the geology and geophysics group at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. He added: ‘But once again, our research will be focused on what the subsea industry needs out of it: an understanding of the sea-bed environment and how we can work with it.’
The oil and gas sectors will not be the only beneficiaries of the NSRI’s expertise. Rodger said: ‘We have had a lot of interest from the renewables sector and we will be working on marine energy, particularly wave and tidal. Many of the skills of the subsea sector would be needed to install and operate tidal energy systems, for example, and to hook them up to the grid for power distribution. That is a small area for us at first, but it could become increasingly important.’