Light years ahead

Space technology could power decom boom


Susi Wiseman

Project Manager (Decommissioning)

With around 100 platforms scheduled for complete or partial removal over the next decade, the Decommissioning Solution Centre at the Oil & Gas Technology Centre addresses the inherent challenges in this huge programme of work.

The Decommissioning Solution Centre is focused on accelerating new technologies to market that will help to reduce decommissioning costs, maximise economic recovery and ensure that facilities are decommissioned efficiently and cost-effectively, while helping the UK to become a world leader in this growing global market.

One of the themes of the Centre is ‘Knowledge Transfer’- supporting technology firms to develop not only innovative new solutions, but also to explore how technology used in other sectors, can be applied to our own.

With its strong focus on working collaboratively with industry and academic partners, both in the UK and across the world, the Centre is keen to reach out to other sectors in its drive to find transferrable technology solutions to the challenges of decommissioning.

To this end, the Centre is currently seeking industry partners to collaborate on tackling current and future challenges, such as reducing the costs of life-support during decommissioning.

In this spirit of co-operation, the Centre’s Project Manager, Susi Wiseman, joined a panel of internationally renowned academics and industry leaders at a European Space Agency (ESA) conference in the Netherlands earlier this year.

Susi was the non-space technology user on the panel of the Pathway to Industrialisation seminar at the ESA’s Innovation Exchange: Radioisotopes for Science, Exploration and Applications in Noordwijk in the Netherlands. She was involved in a discussion on how the application of space exploration technology could accelerate the efficiency, cost-effectiveness and flexibility of oil and gas processes.

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Taking part in the European Space Agency’s Innovation Exchange was a huge thrill for me. I was honoured to be selected to sit on a panel on the day and inspired by the discussions I had with some world-leading authorities on future technologies, including a senior executive from NASA!

The discussion I was involved in during the Pathway to Industrialisation seminar highlighted the synergies between European space power systems, and oil and gas exploration and production. There is vast potential in knowledge transfer here - we can tap into a great deal of space exploration technology and apply it creatively to solve challenges in oil and gas.

One of the highlights of the whole experience was the illuminating conversation I had with Leonard A. Dudzinski – Programme Executive – Planetary Science Division – NASA Headquarters – Washington. He saw real potential in the knowledge and innovation transfer between both industries and mentioned how the oil and gas diving industry has already transferred technology to space. It’s interesting – and gratifying - to note that the technology transfer is working both ways.

In my view there are a number of really valid reasons why our industry could make giant leaps by learning from the space exploration sector.

Most obviously there are several similarities in location and infrastructure: both are situated remotely, use bespoke engineering systems and require extensive life support arrangements. There are also issues around reliability and modularisation which are relevant to both sectors.

One of the biggest challenges we face in decommissioning is providing life support to the facilities during the decommissioning programme. This includes power, heating and ventilation, potable water; monitoring air quality, as well as fire and gas detection and monitoring.

Currently the provision of life support post cessation of production (CoP) provides headaches for operators and service providers, accounting for a significant proportion of overall decommissioning costs (currently estimated to reach £3.4 billion from 2016 – 2025).

Transferring space applications could help to alleviate some of those headaches, by developing a flexible, cost-effective, integrated and appropriately specified package of life support systems, while minimising the use of fossil fuels.

The nature of space travel means that tech developers need to modularise everything the astronauts require, so that they can assemble it all from the modules in-situ. If we can modularise platform utilities during the decommissioning phase, it would bring a number of benefits including: flexibility in the removal scope, reducing the requirement for personnel on board, and consequently reducing the post cessation of production cost.

We know that the next generation of energy facilities must have a low carbon footprint. Conventional methods – the use of fossil fuels in the main – simply won’t be accepted. If we are to deliver Vision 2035 – adding up to £1 trillion to the UK economy and a further 10-20 billion of marginal fields to the UKCS - we won’t be achieving it by powering the new facilities through the conventional way; we need to de-carbonise the carbon industry. Looking at how space-craft and space stations are powered can help us to achieve this.

This is particularly relevant to the late-life phase of a production platform, where diesel is heavily utilised. For example, during the decommissioning of typical offshore platforms, when the power demand can be higher than during normal operations and the gas turbines have been shut down, the diesel consumption can be of 4-5 tonnes per day. In addition to the environmental impact, the resulting volume of exhaust fumes can result in lengthy periods of non-productive time, which equates to spiralling costs and inefficiencies. If we can use alternative methods of powering platforms during this phase, what a commercial success story that would be for the UK!

An additional challenge for our industry is that, even after the decommissioning programme has taken place, some of the subsea infrastructure is left in place, with the operator being liable for this in perpetuity. Imagine if we could replicate what they do in space, and provide remote power for the remote monitoring of offshore infrastructure? It would significantly reduce the residual liability monitoring costs to operators.

So while my experience at the ESA Innovation Exchange was out of this world, innovative solutions to the challenges of decommissioning are most certainly rooted in this one.