OTC '13: Technology leaders at global energy firms search for R&D innovation

By Stephany Romanow

HOUSTON -- On the final day of the 2013 Offshore Technology Conference, an elite panel discussed value creation through technology for the energy industry. Technology group leaders from BP, General Electric, Baker Hughes and Shell shared their company’s visions on innovative technologies and how the energy industry will create value from advanced developments.

By definition, innovation is the creating and applying of new technologies and methods that add to business productivity through metrics such as safety performance and increased reliability of equipment and facilities. All impact the bottom-line of individual facilities and the company as a whole.

The new challenges for the oil & gas (O&G) industry include deepwater, Arctic waters and shale/unconventional gas plays. Each situation has unique conditions and environments; so, no single approach can be applied.

Yet, energy companies continue to struggle to balance the risk vs. the agenda for research & development (R&D) programs. Likewise, the investment for innovative technologies is rising. In any R&D program, it is most difficult to predict when a breakthrough will unfold. The conservative energy industry strives to mitigate, if not avoid, risk.

If you could define R&D innovation as an equation, it would be:

Investment for R&D = (FC/GI) x (GI/AL) x (Al/TC)
FC = Financial contribution, GI = Good ideas, AI = Universe of ideas and TC = Total investment

Dr. Gerald Schotman, executive vice president of innovation and R&D chief technology officer at Shell, said the pace and scale of innovation continues to change at ever increasing rates. Better high-performance computing is needed to analyze massive data sets and to model systems for the energy industry.

David Eyton, group head of research and technology for BP, emphasized that efforts should be directed to increase the efficiency of operations. O&G is under pressure from alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, and renewables. To improve operations, better sensors, automation, and data-handling systems will be necessary to improve efficiency an, likewise, reduce operating costs.

Reliability efforts can be heightened by applying new materials that can withstand the harsh environment of the energy industry. High pressures and high temperatures test the service life of metals. BP is pursuing resilient materials to hydrogen embrittlement.

BP’s Project 20K is a multi-prong program focused on developing tools and materials for pressures exceeding 15,000 psi and temperatures of 350oF. A 20K program underway is the development of hydrogen-resistant steel, which would resist hydrogen embrittlement using nanotechnology.

Mark Little, chief technology officer of General Electric, reinforced the need for technology transfer from other industries to O&G applications. In particular, new component construction processes are needed to construct equipment while retaining the specialty properties of the construction materials. Little commented that using advanced software and Internet will unlock more opportunities to manage mammoth data sets.

Such efforts can be applied to monitoring the operation of critical equipment and diagnosis problems before failure occurs. Likewise, information technology can be used to leverage plant assets and take advantage of business conditions.

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