The last drop

Process automation is helping the oil and gas industries to extract the last of their dwindling reserves while ensuring safety. Julia Pierce reports.


With surging global demand for oil and gas, the industry is one of the fastest growing markets for process automation.

The need for high levels of safety and low operational costs, especially where reserves are becoming exhausted and hydrocarbons are expensive to extract, means installing low-maintenance, reliable systems is key to ensuring fields such as those in the North Sea can be exploited to their maximum ability.

‘In the UK offshore industry there is a trend for large players such as BP to sell their assets to smaller companies such as Venture Production that are moving in for a mopping-up exercise to get the last of the oil out,’ said Richard Sturt, business unit manager at Rockwell Automation. ‘Everything must be highly cost-effective as the margins are narrow in these areas. Control systems must be fit for purpose as many projects are on very tight budgets despite high oil prices.’

Nick Laming, senior vice-president, process automation at ABB, agrees that cutting capital and operating spending are key drivers for automation choices in the hydrocarbon sector. It offers a range of products, including the System 800xA Extended Automation System, which provides the functionality and scalability needed by the oil and gas industries for process and power plant control. The technology is also being used as a power management system (PMS) as it can be supplied as an independent PMS or be integrated into the automation of control and safety systems to provide a single platform for electrical and process control functions.

Jim McKay, Endress+Hauser’s oil and gas industry manager, said ‘fit and forget’ systems are causing the most interest in the oil and gas sector. ‘Level measurement has always been particularly problematic because equipment has to be able to operate in a variety of conditions,’ he said.

‘Newer radar technologies are now being used, including free-space radar and guided wave radar. We have noticed there has been a lot of demand for the latter as it is more robust for major applications. It is very commonly used for displacer replacer applications, utilising existing vessel process connections and bypasses.’

‘We have been doing a lot of work on retrofitting guided wave radar for such applications,’ he added. ‘In many applications the technology offers a low to no maintenance solution, meaning you can make major operational expenditure savings, hence the fact that it is highly sought after.’

McKay said the use of nucleonic Gamma systems has helped companies employ non-intrusive level measurement systems that have the advantage of being a low to no maintenance solution. The company’s customers include Maersk Oil and Gas, Foster Wheeler and Shell.

The group has also introduced a flow measurement tool, the Promass F 10in (DN250) sensor, capable of handling rates up to 2,200 tonnes/hour. This is designed to measure liquids during ship loading of hydrocarbons and gases such as in natural gas transfer pipelines. It features total mass flow, fluid density and fluid temperature as primary measuring variables, allowing users to calculate derived values such as totalised mass, volume flow or standardised volume flow. With its extended electronics functionality, complex calculations such as concentration measurement — for example, the percentage of solid concentration in slurry — can be produced.

According to observers, the industry is trying to achieve a number of goals with automation. In a recent report for Rockwell, ARC Advisory Group noted there are three areas where such technology can provide value: increased flexibility and agility, enhanced safety, and increased reliability and data availability. It believes the oil and gas industry will continue to be the highest growth market in the process industries for the foreseeable future. There are initiatives such as a drive toward remote operations, integration of the oil and gas supply chain and moves to increase energy efficiency.

One emerging technology singled out by the report was transformerless direct-to-drive configuration. The report noted that an isolation transformer could represent 30-50 per cent of a drive system’s size and 50-70 per cent of the system’s weight. By incorporating transformerless technology, operators would reduce the space and weight of such systems, crucial on offshore platforms where space is limited.

Minimising the risk of human error can also save money. ‘It is recognised that one of the biggest causes of losses in the oil and gas industry are operator actions,’ said ABB’s Laming. ‘These can be attributed to a number of factors including alarm flooding and the multiple types of different information that operators are expected to deal with at any one time. These are often from many different systems, presented on many physical screens. Data can include process control information, electrical equipment status, asset management information, telecoms data including communication and CCTV.’

To help operators and prevent avoidable mistakes, ABB has developed the extended operator workplace (EOW) and support for ergonomically-designed control rooms. The EOW systems incorporate the Aspect Object technology of ABB’s System 800xA, and use multiple projection technology and motor driven desks. This provides an ergonomic solution for the operators and facilitates integration of many types of displays, including process graphics in a panoramic view through to engineering drawings such as electrical line diagrams. Customers include Statoil, BP and British Gas.

As demand for fossil fuels outpaces supply, producers need to find new reserves, build new capacity, and maximise uptake from existing wells. Automation technology holds the key to optimising exploration and production processes while improving safety.