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Oliver Astley: Taking Oil and Gas Exploration to New Depths

The challenges of offshore, deep sea drilling are, in a word, immense. Imagine a place three miles below the surface of the ocean, where there is almost complete darkness and the pressure exerted on every square inch is equivalent to the weight of three automobiles.


That’s the type of incredibly harsh environment that GE researchers are competing with as we design electrification equipment for our customers that will power oil and gas processing functions reliably on the seabed.

The environmental challenge is not the only thing that’s immense — so too is the market opportunity. Exploration and drilling operations are continuing to move to areas, like Brazil’s pre-salt region, that are deeper and further offshore, in a hunt for gigantic pools of untapped oil and gas reserves. In fact, Brazil’s Petrobras expects 50 percent of its total production to come from the pre-salt area by 2020. Globally, deepwater investments will total in excess of $1.2 trillion — 18 percent of total amount spent on exploration and production — over the course of the current decade, management consultancy Arthur D. Little estimates.

These figures are staggering, demonstrating why the industry is depending on companies such as GE to develop new solutions to effectively power rigs operating in some of the toughest environments known to man.

Solutions for these sorts of complex problems are rarely arrived at easily; perseverance is the key. Indeed, there is so much more to engineering than having an idea, building it and selling it. Ensuring that the technology works is a necessary condition, but that alone is not sufficient for it to be successful.  Our engineers spend significant time and effort trying to understand the customer problem and the acceptance criteria required for them to adopt that technology. Simply put, oil and gas operators want to know with absolute certainty that a product performs and that it will be reliable before they risk spending money on it.

Imagine the challenge operators have in selecting products and adopting new technologies for subsea applications. Equipment can be hundreds of miles from land, operating at depths where there are few signs of life. If that equipment does not perform, you cannot simply call a 1-800 number, send it back in a box with a receipt, or send a technician out to fix it. Each day the facility is not producing oil, it costs the owner millions of dollars. This puts an incredible burden on a new technology to prove that it will meet its performance and reliability promise.

In this video you’ll see below, my colleague Rixin Lai and I discuss a technology to robustly power subsea processing machinery from long distance — the motors, pumps, and other vital equipment needed to hoist oil and gas out of the ground and back to the surface.

In our lab in upstate New York, the team is focused on proving that this technology can handle and contain unexpected events if something goes wrong with the machinery operating on the sea floor. It’s a holistic approach. We’re engineering solutions to deliver reliable, efficient and robust power along with protection mechanisms that can shield vital equipment from damage. To illustrate the point, think of your house as a mini-factory. It needs power in order for electronics to function, and devices — like circuit breakers — to protect those electronics. If your washing machine were to malfunction, those breakers would prevent the problem from spreading and taking down the rest of your appliances. We’re working on similar technology, albeit on an industrial scale, that must operate in the world’s most inhospitable regions: several miles below the sea surface where it’s an icy 4ºC, the equivalent weight of three cars pushes down on each square inch of equipment, and there’s no chance of a repair person arriving quickly to fix any issues that arise.

The lab environment is ideal to emulate select conditions subsea. For example, the electrical distances are represented not by miles of cable, but by components like inductors, capacitors and resistors that mimic the properties of the cable. The equipment is not underwater at this stage, since we made the determination that it is not worth the expense and time to submerge in water until we can prove that fundamental performance on dry land.

We are encouraged by early results of our lab testing, but have a ways to go before we can take this type of technology underwater. It’s all part of the immense challenge of transforming an idea into a functioning machine — in this case, one that would spend its life on the sea floor.

Oliver Astley is Technology Leader for Power Conversion and Delivery at GE Global Research.


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