Subsea research drive reaches maturity

Seeking to establish itself as the national strategic centre of excellence for subsea research, the National Subsea Research Institute (NSRI) recently unveiled the future focus for its ground-breaking research – and the accent will be very much on addressing the needs of mature oil & gas sectors such as the North Sea. Funded by industry and academia, and based in the University of Aberdeen, the NSRI is to concentrate its R&D efforts on improving integrity and performance. Its newly launched strategy is to fast-track research into identifying ‘game-changing scientific solutions to the increasingly complex challenges of extracting hydrocarbons from mature provinces’.

The institute is aiming to attract world-leading scientists to Scotland and establish four university research chairs in innovative inspection, underwater robotics and autonomous learning, underwater communications and intelligent monitoring systems.

David Pridden

David Pridden, who recently joined the NSRI as chief executive, explains: ‘To secure the world’s future energy supply, oil and gas companies are exploring and producing hydrocarbons in increasingly mission-critical situations with highly sophisticated equipment. Until now, the focus for subsea research and technology development has been upon frontier, deepwater areas. NSRI aims to be the first dedicated research facility in the world to address the demands of mature sectors such as the North Sea, which calls for maximising recovery whilst reducing capital and operational expenditure.

‘There is no room for error subsea,’ adds Pridden. ‘Integrity and performance of systems and equipment are paramount. We have to push the boundaries in terms of the science to create the next generation of subsea technology for mature provinces. NSRI will undertake world-class research to introduce more intelligence, more communication and smart systems on the seabed.’

John Mair, chairman of the Subsea Technology Advisory Group (Stag) and global technology manager with Subsea 7, adds: ‘Our aim is to achieve one or two significant breakthroughs in these areas of research which will lead to improved system integrity and enhanced production. For example, quantum based sensors for inspection promise the potential for resolutions several orders of magnitude better than existing ones. The introduction of self-learning, selfsupporting autonomous underwater vehicles could reduce and eventually eliminate surface vessel support and the application of chaos theory could dramatically improve underwater communications.’

At present, Aberdeen, Dundee, Newcastle and Robert Gordon universities have partnered with 20 companies to fund the institute and conduct research. But NSRI is now seeking to extend its academic reach.

Pridden explains: ‘We are embarking on a major fund-raising exercise with government and industry to be able to attract world-leading scientists and academics to a subsea centre of excellence in the UK. The UK clearly lags behind the rest of the world in terms of oil and gas R&D spend. Since the 1980s, the UK industry has had, quite frankly, minimal support from government who, unlike in Norway, have provided no incentive for companies to invest in research in the UK.

‘In this time of national austerity, subsea is one of the few sectors in the UK that has major, short-term growth potential, having achieved 40% growth in the last three years, despite the economic downturn. Manufacturing accounts for 35% of the £5.9 billion output.

‘Now is the time to capitalise on the growing global market, by investing in focused, UK R&D to increase our export potential, create jobs and stop further erosion of the country’s technology base. We must invest considerably more in subsea-related research in the same way that we do in defence, aerospace and more recently renewables. I see no difference in subsea systems whether they exploit subsurface oil or gas reserves or energy from tidal forces. They are all subsea systems.’ OE

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