Rocket Science? No, It’s Harder

“Sometimes our subsea engineers joke that it is more difficult than rocket science to put a machine on the ocean floor, under extreme pressures and in a highly corrosive environment”, says Juan Albeniz, Business Program Manager, Oil & Gas at GE Global Research Europe.

Juan Albeniz, Business Program Manager, Oil & Gas at GE Global Research, Europe
Juan Albeniz, Business Program Manager, Oil & Gas at GE Global Research, Europe

Developing extreme machines for the subsea environment is a challenge that teams at GE Global Research Europe have been working on since the lab opened 10 years ago. There are many aspects to the work. However, as Albeniz explains, there is one fundamental challenge that the subsea researchers are constantly grappling with. “We are trying to build machines that will never break down”, says Albeniz.

A subsea compressor or pump thousands of meters under the sea is extremely difficult to access. As oil & gas companies strive to find reserves in ever more inaccessible situations, customers want equipment that they can place on the ocean floor rather than on an offshore platform, and therefore machinery needs to operate for many thousands of hours before it needs to be serviced or replaced.

These machines demand extreme levels of reliability. “On our cars most of us will have some sort of service after about 15,000 kilometers, such as changing the oil, checking the engine, replacing a few parts. That’s roughly every 250 hours of driving. On a subsea rotating machine, we target the first maintenance after five years – that’s the equivalent of taking your car to the mechanic for the first time after more than two million kilometers”, explains Albeniz. The level of endurance this technology requires is extraordinary. Even if a motorist covers 30,000 kilometers a year, a year, more than 95 percent of the time their car will be parked. A subsea pump or compressor must run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year… and never break.

The challenge has become even more urgent as the global oil & gas industry looks to place more equipment on the seabed floor rather than on offshore platforms, which are highly expensive to operate and not practical in many remote locations.

Developing an extreme machine for hostile subsea locations involves a myriad of challenges, many of which the European team are actively researching. For instance how to supply electrical power to deep sea locations? As Albeniz says; “So when you arrive with an electric motor ready to start in these deep sea locations, where and how do you put in the plug.” Subsea power transmission and distribution is a highly complex area and the European team is involved in important research in this area, looking at new technologies to supply efficient and reliable power.

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Another challenge is developing sophisticated multiphase pumps that can digest not just oil or just gas, as traditional machinery would do, but whatever combination of crude oil, gas, water, and sand that is being pumped out of the reservoir. Albeniz also describes another challenge, the ‘marinisation’ of equipment that is available on-shore. He says; “If you think about a submarine, it needs complex equipment, but it comes to the surface for maintenance. We don’t have this option; our equipment is so deep it needs to stay in the ocean for a very long time.”

The team is researching new materials and other ways to help equipment withstand the subsea extremes. Albeniz comments; “Sometimes we are looking at completely different ways to do things. So take a computer control system. There may be an electronic board that we enclose in a steel case, but because of the subsea extreme pressures making the enclosure susceptible to collapse, it has to be a very thick steel case. Then, there are issues around keeping the system cool. So you can investigate new materials and stronger steels to reduce that thickness. However, another option is to find a way to make the electronic board so that it works under 300 atmospheres of pressure. That way, you would not need a submarinetype enclosure, and there is no issue with the cooling aspects.”

The Munich team is also working on improving other ‘extreme machinery’. For instance, onshore rotating machinery (like pumps, gas compressors and turbines) that have to work in the middle of the desert, or the jungle, or on an offshore platform. Says Albeniz, “These are often very large, sophisticated machines. They may be a vital aspect in making a whole pipeline work across Siberia or from North Africa to Europe so that we can have natural gas in our kitchen or our home heating.”

Another big research effort is underway to maximize the use of data that these extreme machines produce and send back to shore. Says Albeniz; “Whatever the aspect of the research, it is all about making these extreme machines more reliable, efficient and less costly.”