Island dreams

Jennifer Pallanich
Friday, January 4, 2013

Could a chain of islands designed to house and feed workers closer to production locations be a viable solution to the daunting logistical challenges faced by operators working in remote offshore locations in Brazil and other parts of the world? Rice University students in Houston think they can. Jennifer Pallanich takes a closer look at their Petropolis plan.

Petrobras has been looking into new ways to address the logistics issues associated with working in remote offshore locations. A trio of Rice University architecture students took up the challenge of water-based urbanism. They devised a potential solution to the operator’s problem of the amount of energy associated with ferrying supplies and workers between land and distant offshore drilling and production sites.

As they see it, Petropolis would strategically place stationary and moveable islands along a 600km-long corridor offshore Brazil to establish a region that serves offshore oil extraction while sustaining a population of 40,000 to 50,000 individuals.

Three stationary hub islands would serve as the starting or end points and would house the majority of off-work oil workers, non-oil workers, and family members. Hubs would feature industrial and residential areas as well as civic components like schools, libraries and parks. Ten agricultural islands charged with growing food for Petropolis’ population would drift along the corridor. Energy collection islands would produce energy for the development.

In taking the top spot for innovation in Odebrecht Award for Sustainable Development competition, the three architecture students jointly won a purse of $20,000, advising professor Neeraj Bhatia received $10,000, and Rice University received $10,000. The projects were judged by experts in fields ranging from construction to chemistry to engineering to sustainability. Criteria included technical contribution, reasoning and depth, real-world applicability, and adherence to Odebrecht’s view of sustainability as a synergy of economic development, social development, environmental balance, political participation and cultural diversity.

Drift boats would move among the agricultural islands to harvest and transport the food and collect the energy. Mobile boats would house workers, transport oil & gas, and separate drilling fluid waste into water, oil and solid drill cuttings for transfer either to the drift boat or use as fertilizer on the agricultural islands. The proposed system relies on centralized pipelines as opposed to shuttle tankers to transfer oil from its production location to shore.

The Petropolis design relies on the warm-water Brazil Current to connect the ‘islands’ with boats in a process that would see the current propel the boats from ‘islands’ in the north to ‘islands’ in the south before the boats motor back up north to complete the loop. This cycle connects the hubs and provides food and energy for the inhabitants of the project.

The proposal revolves around the establishment of smaller farming islands along the drift route so that daily, boats would arrive at new islands to allow for harvest and maintenance of food crops. As team member Weijia Song puts it, ‘it’s almost a return to a nomadic lifestyle’ for the farmer. The proposal – which won first for the Odebrecht Award for Sustainable Development earlier this year – suggests a network of both moving and stationary islands would form a more efficient system for supporting the oil & gas extraction process in remote locations of the Campos and Santos Basins offshore Brazil.

Science fiction

‘It sounds like a science fiction project, but it’s not that far off,’ Song says.

She, along with fellow architecture students Joanna Luo and Alexander Yune studied floating platforms, rigs and FPSOs and their potential to serve as the islands over a period of six months. ‘These typologies were based strictly on efficiency and economy, and we wanted to redesign to bring a human condition to it,’ Song says. ‘We call them islands, but they’re actually floating platforms based on the technology used by rigs.’

The islands are intended to handle a population of around 40,000 – workers along with their families – and could effectively end the two-weeks on, two-weeks off cycles common to the offshore industry.

The team envisions the island chain being brought into existence over a period of decades. Each island would take up to three years to build, Song notes, and it would make sense to place them in the water in a phased approach. For example, initially the hub islands would be deployed, anchored to pipelines. Then service boats would be added to create the basic skeleton of the project. The next step calls for deploying individual agriculture islands for food and energy, followed by the drifting boats to connect the constellation of islands.

‘Some of the most impressive structures in the world go completely unseen’ because they are offshore, Song says. ‘Being able to build these out on the water, it was like the final frontier.’ OE

Categories: Activity South America

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