Helena Pozniak
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Reap rewards in the technology sector

The Telegraph
Smart thinking ensures the oil and gas industry remains at the cutting edge

If it weren’t for bright, innovative ideas, many of the North Sea oil and gas fields would have closed long ago. Ingenious technologies, such as directional drilling combined with seismic imaging, have seen the life of some fields prolonged by decades, by enabling operators to target oil and gas thousands of metres from the drilling rig. Where extraction used to be a guessing game, it’s now driven by sophisticated detection and production technologies. And it’s not yet a mature sector — as extraction moves to ever tougher environments, challenges won’t get easier, say service companies. “Research and development is critical to the long-term success of the industry,” says Phil Cartmel, chief executive at Corac Energy Technologies, a subsidiary of Corac Group. Even though multinationals scaled back funding in research and development after the oil price crash in 1986, it’s once again a good time, say many industry insiders, to work in this field. “It’s no secret that oil and gas research is generally well-funded,” says Julia Greenwood, an engineer at engineering and technology developer Cambridge Consultants. “Projects are often large-scale, involving top-of-the-range instruments and techniques.” After obtaining a physics degree and a research masters in medical robotics at Imperial College London, Greenwood was drawn by the research opportunities in a sector that is exceptionally varied. She has recently been working on fluorescence imaging — a technique initially developed for pregnancy tests — for use in detecting oil leaks. Other projects included designing a sensor with optical fibres and researching fluid dynamics. “I learn most of these skills on the job, so it’s pretty challenging,” she says. There’s no fixed career path for entering research and development. Teams are multi-disciplinary; entrepreneurial ventures might emerge to be bought up by larger service companies, such as Schlumberger or Weatherford International; and multinationals team up with universities on specialist long-term projects. Graduates might sit alongside longserving engineers, says Cartmel. His company values mathematicians, engineers and scientists, but crucially those with experience in delivering real systems — Corac sometimes poaches talent from the aerospace and defence sectors. Nimble technology companies often work on projects requiring a quick turnaround, sometimes as tight as six months. “Rig costs are high, so fast, reliable and robust solutions are needed,” says Annabel Green, head of strategy and marketing at Tendeka, an Aberdeen-based oil and gas services company. Teams comprising chemists and mechanical, design and electronics engineers occasionally work together on longer, more speculative and costly ideas. “These bigger projects probably offer the greatest excitement, with the anticipation of taking a concept to successful completion,” she says. “But we need to be confident of a commercial solution at the end.” With 17 years of experience in research and development, she advises anyone with a keen interest to cut their teeth in the field for at least a couple of years, as she once did. “You need a sound understanding of the environment to develop equipment for use,” she says, adding that alongside scientists, many technicians and engineers are involved in developing and deploying the technology. Tendeka actively targets graduates to counter an industry skills shortage. “The only practical solution is to give graduates one or two years in the field then pull them into research and development roles,” believes Green. Blue-sky thinking often takes place in the research departments of the energy giants, such as Shell, Exxon Mobil and Statoil, and the larger players also sponsor or acquire small start-ups. Around 10pc of Shell’s 45,000 technical and engineering staff conduct research at centres worldwide — including its European technology hub in the Netherlands — and the company says it has been the largest investor in research and development for the past five years. In 1996 Shell funded a Game Changer unit to nurture entrepreneurial innovation; it has since invested millions of dollars in some 1,500 innovators and turned 100 ideas into reality. BP invests around US$600 million in research and development every year, and roughly the same again for technology field trials and deployment, and operates seven main technology centres in the UK, Germany and the US. Entering research and development with a

major operator often requires a PhD and some industry experience, and BP — like other multinationals — partners with universities to develop key technologies. In fact, research and development is a highly collaborative field due to the number of interested parties involved in extraction and production, says Mark Guest, managing director of online jobs board Oil Careers. “Many of the smaller companies come about after former employees of the energy conglomerates have identified an opportunity and set up on their own, hoping to be picked up by bigger investors,” he explains. “The whole industry plugs together nicely.”

Breakthroughs that are helping to push the industry forward

Access all areas

Sensabot, a robot equipped with sensors and 10 cameras, has been designed for the inspection of oil and gas equipment in the field, and can be controlled from up to 62 miles away. Around 4ft long, 30in wide and weighing 550lbs, it can measure heat, noise and vibration and detect flammable gases, such as hydrogen sulphide and methane. Developer Shell hopes to put the Sensabot to work in some of its most remote oil and gas fields, where conditions are hostile and dangerous.

Wells of fortune

A rubber toy dinosaur that grows when placed in water inspired Shell senior research scientist Erik Cornelissen to invent a synthetic rubber seal that swells on contact with water and can withstand enormous heat and pressure underground. The synthetic seal lengthens a field’s life by preventing water from entering the well. In the first three years of using the technology, which is now employed widely across the industry, Shell increased oil recovery by more than 1.5 million barrels.

Risk assessment

New technologies by BP are being deployed to monitor risks, such as corrosion of infrastructure and the condition of critical pieces of equipment. Permasense ultrasonic sensors, an ultrasonic wireless corrosion sensor developed in collaboration with Imperial College London, allows experts to monitor the condition of equipment that is particularly difficult to access. Following trials in the Caribbean, the high-resolution inspection technology is currently being rolled out across BP’s upstream platforms.

Under pressure

A compact gas compressor is being developed that promises to provide a more flexible and economic solution to prolong the life of gas reservoirs, which lose pressure over time. UK based Corac Energy Technologies is behind the lightweight compressor designed to fit inside the production pipework, either at the wellhead or deep underground. Featuring contactless bearings, it will have longer maintenance intervals and so can be used in more challenging locations, such as on the deck of an unmanned offshore platform.

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