It is well established that the ability to access hydrocarbon resources from increasingly-challenging environments will be key to meeting global energy demand in the years ahead.
For example, US Geological Survey studies estimate that, worldwide, the Arctic region accounts for about 13% of undiscovered oil, 30% of undiscovered natural gas and 20% of undiscovered natural gas liquids.
However, there are a number of technical challenges associated with exploration and production in this region.
The Aberdeen-based Industry Technology Facilitator (ITF) has launched two joint industry projects that aim to tackle some of the challenges relating to sea ice in the context of oil & gas exploration and production, and is working with a third proposal which it is hoped will launch this year.
One of them, RAIDACT, is a six-month feasibility study being undertaken by Systems Engineering & Assessment Ltd (SEA). It has a background in designing and building radars with a range of applications.
Recent projects include minefield detection and investigation of foliage penetration.
RAIDACT is focused on the challenge of detecting and classifying sea ice approaching an exploration platform.
Mobile ice can cause difficulty in Arctic exploration campaigns, and this project could ultimately lead to a system that will provide the ability to detect and identify ice that poses a danger, and enable more accurate decisions to be made with respect to whether operations can continue, or whether it is necessary to stop operations and move.
Alan Fromberg, ground systems business manager at SEA’s aerospace division, told Energy: “What we are doing in this project is bringing our experience from other sectors and trying to improve understanding of how the oil & gas industry can optimise its use of radar to detect sea ice.
“For example, there are commonly a number of navigation radars on a drilling platform which might just be used in getting the platform to the location, so we are looking at whether this kind of equipment can be used in a different way or enhanced, what information about sea ice the industry needs, and what we could add to radar already on the rig to optimise the information acquired.
“It would be relatively straightforward to design a state-of-the-art radar system to detect sea ice, but the cost could potentially run into millions of pounds. So what we want to do here is focus down on the optimum solution, looking at what information is really needed and how the technology already in use within the industry could be adapted.”
Costs associated with stopping drilling and repositioning a rig are high, and better information about the state of the ice and how rapidly it is moving could help to avoid unnecessary stoppages as well as reducing the likelihood of an accident.
There are a number of different radar configurations that are used for a range of different applications. Frequency is important as higher frequencies give more information about the surface of the ice, with lower frequencies giving greater penetration.
Low-angle radars such as navigation radars can detect certain types of ice, but cannot classify it, so chunks of floating ice, know as growlers, are difficult to detect with ship-mounted radar.
High-angle polarimetric radar systems, which are used on earth observation satellites, have been proven as a means of classification, but the repeat cycles are long, data delivery is not in real time and the data has to be processed.
The researchers at SEA believe that it is possible to design a system which will provide real-time ice classification and plotting based on polarimetric radar.
Fromberg added: “One approach might be to design a system which, most of the time, is transmitting and receiving from the rig. If something of concern appears, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) could be launched to collect extra data.
“Flying above the target gives the higher-viewing angle required for polarimetric measurements which are able to distinguish different characteristics of the ice, such as thickness and other properties, that help to predict how much damage it might do.
“The usual issue with radar from a small UAV is that there is not enough power on board to handle the large amounts of data produced as processing data on board requires a bigger and more expensive aircraft. So it makes sense to put as much of the transmitting and receiving infrastructure on the rig as possible, and to use transponder technology on the UAV to receive and transmit back to the rig where the data is processed and decisions are made.”
Neil Poxon, managing director of ITF, the oil & gas industry’s technology facilitator, said: “This project gives a fascinating insight into just one of the many technology challenges associated with exploration and production in Arctic areas.
“We are also working with a proposal for a project to develop an ice-strengthened lifeboat concept, submitted by Canadian naval architect and marine engineering company Robert Allan Ltd, which I hope will launch later in the year.
“That proposal, and the RAIDACT project help to highlight the range and scale of the technology development challenge associated with tackling new and hostile areas such as the Arctic. Other significant challenges for this area include subsea installations, long tie-backs and flow assurance.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Poxon is clear that a collaborative, global approach to technology development is crucial to the future of the oil & gas industry and its ability to access remaining reserves from increasingly-challenging environments.
“We are actively pursuing this goal with our plans for 2011 and beyond. Establishing bases in key regions around the world will help us to engage more effectively with our current members, potential new members and the wider technology development community.
“The ultimate goal is to focus on the most important global technology needs, understand more about the expertise available and find the best solutions,” said Poxon.
Arctic challenges is just one of a number of themes that ITF has targeted on behalf of its members in recent years. Following the facilitator’s annual technology conference in December, seven themes have been identified for 2011. The topics are:
Enhanced oil recovery (EOR)
Unconventional reservoirs (oil)
Tail-end production (including aging assets)
A technology challenge workshop will be held for each of these themes, and the output from each used to create detailed calls for proposals to be promulgated to the global technology development community.
ITF will kick off its series of technology challenge workshops for 2011 by holding its very first workshop in the Middle East. Attendees will travel to Kuwait on February 7 to discuss and debate the challenges related to EOR. Dates of subsequent workshops are to be confirmed.
Poxon: “I am delighted that our first workshop of 2011 is to be held in Kuwait as it underlines our commitment to engage with companies from the Middle East.
“These workshops are an opportunity for experts from operators, major service companies, SMEs and research and academic organisations to sample and be involved in the ITF process, which encourages interaction between industry end users and the technology development community.
“We have set ourselves some ambitious targets for the coming year, including the establishment of a local office in the Middle East, so the success of this workshop is very important to us.”