Written by Niamh Burns -
Energy Voice has teamed up with Shell to celebrate 40 years of Brent. This promoted series will examine the people, milestones and technology that helped make this historic North Sea find possible. It will also analyse what lies ahead for the breakthrough discovery. Happy 40th Brent!
Shell’s North Sea endeavours were once compared to putting a man on the moon.
Adverts showing giant alien platforms orbiting in the solar system likened the oil major’s exploration bid as being as difficult and ground-breaking as man’s first zero-gravity step.
Today, 40 years later, Shell has adapted technology used on the International Space Station to help break-up the North Sea’s Brent breakthrough.
NASA scientists have led ground-breaking technology for use in North Sea oil and gas decommissioning.
It took an abandoned nuclear missile silo, a vast underwater laboratory and some of the brightest brains to work out what to do with 64 hollow concrete vessels from the Brent field.
The Shell-operated Brent Bravo, Brent Charlie and Brent Delta were put into position in the 1970s, each weighing more than 300,000 tonnes.
Then, a few years ago, experts from the NASA robotics team were called upon by oil major Shell as it looked for a technical solution.
The problem: What to do with the concrete vessels which had been used to store oil and help anchor the platforms.
Duncan Manning, business opportunity manager on the Brent project, said: “So we had technical partnership with NASA and we have an internal organisation which reaches out to NASA to see if they can provide a technical solution to one of our problems. That started in 2012, and they said they could provide a capability which we couldn’t get from anywhere else. That’s how it all kicked off.”
According to Manning, from “flash to bang” it took two years from initial discussions to a capability being deployed offshore.
The original plan had been to drill through the top of the vessels which would have been risky.
Instead, a sonar sphere probe was created and tested in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy lab where a replica of the Brent pipe system was created.
Manning said: “They had to pull together a project team to work on it; they had to identify testing locations to actually test the sonar sphere.
“They had to do those tests and then had to come out and do their offshore training and then go offshore so quite an elongated process.
“Test facilities themselves are quite interesting because they first of all have to build effectively the pipework in their zero gravity centre which is a very large swimming pool in Houston.
“Having done that they have to check the actual movement of the sphere moves as it should do.
“They also did a test in a former intercontinental ballistic missile silo which was filled with water. It is roughly the same dimensions as one of our spheres so they used it again to test the sonar of the sphere.”
The sonar sphere was, Manning said, “pretty much” adapted from the technology which is used to test out internal pipelines on the International Space Station.
There were three initial attempts to see if the probe would work which were unsuccessful.
Then, on a fourth attempt, the NASA employees had success and managed to get data coming through.
Manning said the Sonar Sphere is about “the size of a football” with a tether on the back it.
The tether provided the power but also the link back to where the information could be related.
The NASA employees had to get trained on leg entry so they could get into the legs of the Brent platforms.
Manning said: “We had to ensure the location they were going to was safe and they then went into the legs deployed the sonar sphere through the stuffing box and flushed it into the cell and
took the necessary readings.
“Sounds straight forward, it actually took quite a few attempts to get to that point where we were successful and having tried it a couple of times twice on two separate occasions in 2014 on
Brent Delta we weren’t successful we then had to go back having refined the way we went about it and also refined the sonar sphere, went back onto Brent Bravo, in June this year which was successful.
The legs are 17 metres in diameter and the NASA staff had to have full personal protective equipment as well as other specialist equipment to complete the work.
Manning said the success of the project illustrated Shell was willing to be “bold and imaginative” about overcoming challenges in decommissioning.
He said: “Understanding the contents of the cell was important to us as we move forward with our technical document as part of the decommissioning programme.
“It was important we understood the content of the cell as part of a stakeholder manager perspective, engaging with stakeholders and understanding their needs and concerns has been very
important to us as we’ve been very thorough and we’ve reached out to a wide spectrum of stakeholders as part of the project.
“Both stakeholders have made it clear to us that understanding the contents of the cell was very important to be able to ove that issue forward. We employed those parallel techniques to gain understanding of quantity and composition of the cells and those parallel techniques involved going from the outside in drilling a hole through the concrete to get into the cell and deploying measuring tools. But also going from the inside in and this was the NASA tool that allowed the inside in measurement technique.
“Certainly in decommissioning this is the first time NASA has been involved and the first time in the North Sea. To be fair, they were a very professional, energetic set of individuals who were keen to overcome the problems that were set and once they were deployed offshore they invariably generated a degree of enthusiasm just by their presence on the platform so a pleasure to work with.”
To celebrate and capture the rich history of Brent, Shell is commissioning an e-memory book and an oral history project. If you have an unforgettable Brent story, or have an old photo or memory you would like to share, you can submit them at www.shell.co.uk/brentmemories. The oral history project will be interviewing a selection of candidates from a variety of roles and years to record the highlights and uncover the less widely known stories from the last 40 years. Digital recordings will be donated to The University of Aberdeen who will share these stories with anyone who is interested, from family members and researchers, to students and the public. Please contact Brentinfo@shell.com if you would like more information about these projects.