Growth plans gel well

May 1, 2012

The urge to explore new offshore markets outwith its traditional base as a cement and stimulation additives supplier has seen chemical technology specialist Aubin diversify into buoyancy and ballasting territory in recent years. Meg Chesshyre discusses the company’s provenance and future plans with managing director Paddy Collins.

Based in Ellon, Aberdeenshire, Aubin has been in business since 1987 but is still a relative newcomer to the offshore sector. ‘Although we’re based in Scotland, most of our sales have traditionally been onshore in the Middle East,’ explains Paddy Collins, a chemist by training, who took over the reins of the company in 1995 following stints with Clariant, Expro and Schlumberger. ‘However, in the last few years we’ve been looking to develop new technologies and new products for other parts of the industry, and the subsea sector seemed particularly attractive.’

The first product off the stocks, developed about six years ago, was a ‘gel with a memory’, which can be squashed hard but still returns to its original shape. L-gel is used for pigging pipes, including risers, that are otherwise deemed unpiggable. ‘Normally supplied in its own canister so it is ready to run, it will go round tight bends, through restrictions, where conventional pigs might get stuck,’ explains Collins. ‘It can also be supplied as a liquid, so that clients can form the pig in the pipeline, where there isn’t actually a way of getting a pig in there. The gel is pumped in, then left to set.’

Offshore applications to date for L-gel include its deployment on Brent field decommissioning activities for Shell in the North Sea and in a subsea pipe cleaning exercise for a client off West Africa. Other gels in the company’s pigging range can be used for cleaning pipelines and removing debris.

Paddy CollinsNext up on the Aubin market radar was buoyancy and ballast, with the company bringing to market two new products with a very low density (550kg/m3), similar to syntactic. ‘The novel feature of our DeepBuoy (low density fluid) and GLS (gel lifting system) products is that they are liquids, so you can pump them from one place to another, and they are incompressible, so you are able to add buoyancy in a very controlled way to an object subsea,’ notes Collins.

An added advantage of the DeepBuoy material is that it is environmentally friendly, its chemicals having been classed as ‘PLONOR’ [pose little or no risk to the environment]. The viscosifying agent to make this gel has come straight out of the food industry – it could be used in yoghurt, or pot noodles!’ declares Collins. A variant, DiveGel, comprises a complete package with the gel, the pumping unit and the bag.

This is all still fairly new, although Collins is confident that the company is getting very close to its first customer. The system was trialled last June in the Scapa Flow, off Orkney, and is reported to have successfully recovered a 1t object in 50ft of water. ‘It also gave us the idea that we could use this for diver applications to replace airbags, which are a big safety concern,’ adds Collins. The buoyant gel is rated for 3000m water depths, so the company is also looking at potential ROV applications.

Aubin sees the gels being particularly useful in platform decommissioning or modification work, where access is restricted and no craneage option is available. It is also exploring new ideas for gels targeting insulation and improved oil recovery.

For ballast, Aubin says another of its in-house developed products, designated Liquidense, makes it possible to secure objects to the seabed in a quick and easy manner without the need for large cranes. ‘This uses similar chemicals, but there is also some spin-off from our experience with cementing, making slurries and such like,’ says Collins. ‘Liquidense is fairly new out of the lab and we are already talking to people about potential installation work, particularly in the renewables sector. One gel can be used to provide controlled buoyancy to lower a wind turbine foundation, while another holds it in place.’

Another breakout technology, a non-reactive, silicone-based sealing gel dubbed DeepSeal, was employed by specialist subsea consultancy Flexlife in the repair of a damaged riser. Once Flexlife had fixed its Armadillo dynamic repair system around the damaged riser, Aubin pumped in the sealing gel, thus isolating the damaged part from the corrosive effect of seawater. Aubin has also worked with Marin Subsea, looking at using Marin’s pumps to pump gels faster, and with marine installation specialist Ecosse Subsea Systems, looking at engineering and subsea applications for GLS and DeepBuoy. ‘We can bring chemistry to help solve engineering challenges,’ notes Collins.

From top: The marine turbine assembly is constructed close to the installation site. Tanks are attached to the turbine assembly on the slipway and filled with enough gel to make the whole structure buoyant. The turbine complete with tanks is launched into the water, just as a ship would be. The marine turbine assembly, kept afloat by the gel in the tanks, is towed to site. Hoses are attached and water is allowed to flood the tanks displacing the gel which is recovered by the tow vessel. The assembly attached to its towing vessel begins to sink in a controlled fashion until it settles on the seabed. Once the assembly is on the seabed most of the rest of the gel is displaced. The front of the tank is detached causing the tank to rise until the tanks are upright in the water away from the turbine. The tanks are detached and move downstream away from the turbine where they are collected from their tether point. 

Asked about the economics of using gels compared with other lifting methods, Collins points out that the gel is only rented. ‘We’ve looked at the economics and we believe they stack up very well, particularly bearing in mind the benefits in safety and flexibility, the ease of getting the job done. We expect to see significant savings from reduced boat time and reduced people time, because it is so much easier to use.’

Aubin has its own manufacturing facilities so as well as designing products it can make them on site in quantities from 100 litres to 20,000 litres, also powdered materials, solids and gels. Most of the products are made at the plant.

In February the company set up a strategic partnership with an agent in Brazil. The partnership agreement with Nortech, both a distributor of products and a service provider, covers pipeline gels and pig gels. In the longer term, Collins says Aubin may consider developing a Brazilian plant.

Another potential market, this time on Aubin’s doorstep, is Norway. ‘There is a lot of scope for technologically suitable products in Norway and there is a greater willingness to look overseas for solutions than perhaps has been the case in the past,’ says Collins. Aubin is also looking to expand its activities into the Gulf of Mexico and Australia, where it has already received expressions of interest.

‘One of the challenges for us as a small company is to decide where we are going to do business and where we are not,’ he adds.

‘Obviously we can’t be everywhere immediately. The next step in growing the company is to identify the key markets.’

Collins heads a team of 20 currently, among them highly qualified scientists and recent graduates with a keen interest in R&D. He says the company’s turnover rose 5% to £4.6 million (to year end July 2011) and is on target to pass the £10 million mark within three years.

He is enthusiastic about the offshore tasks ahead. ‘The technical challenges offshore are much greater than they are onshore, but it is much more interesting. It is tremendously satisfying to come up with an idea, develop it in the lab, take it to a customer, work with them to get it into a field solution, take it out onto the field and have it work straight off, then start to see that build up in the long term.

‘It is back to the old story of bringing chemistry to solve engineering problems, focusing on a niche and making sure that the products you develop are easy to use,’ concludes Collins. OE

From top: Tank containing DeepBuoy is lowered to seabed. ROV moves into position. The spool piece and the buoyancy bags descend to the seabed with the second ROV. ROV fits line to the buoyancy bag. ROV pumps seawater into the outer bag and squeezes the inner bag displacing DeepBuoy. The buoyancy bag rises and lifts the spool piece as DeepBuoy is pumped in. ROV can adjust the buoyancy level by displacing DeepBuoy with seawater to fit the spool piece. By repeating the same process, ROV fits the other end of the spool piece.

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