Adopting high-end hydraulics for subsea operations

Online Editor

Alistair Mykura explains why the industry should recognise existing hydraulic control fluids to meet growing energy demand.

It’s a complicated energy market environment. The impacts of the pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war and global economic recession risks are putting the emphasis on energy security, as the economies of developing countries – such as China and India – are driving demand for energy. Clearly, to meet the growing demand and as the transition to renewables gathers pace, oil and gas will still play a critical role in the global energy system.

With a surge in demand and unprecedented commercial pressure on owners and operators, every missed hour of production could mean millions of dollars of lost revenue. Now more than ever, ensuring and maintaining asset reliability is critical – especially as the industry ventures into more complex, deeper and more remote fields to meet the scale of demand.

One segment experiencing a resurgence is subsea mining, with operators and owners exploring how to boost the bottom line with innovation top of mind. Arguably the most innovative area within this segment is that of subsea control systems, with many new and interesting solutions coming to the market.

A key growth opportunity area currently is the investment and expansion of electric systems as an alternative to electro hydraulic multiplexed (EH-MUX) systems. Although clearly helping chart the path to the future of the industry; safe, reliable cost-effective system solutions are required today. Operators are looking for the path of least resistance to delivering energy, and hydraulic systems still present an attractive solution.

So, with the industry’s focus on new technologies, do we risk getting carried away with the focus around all-electric systems and overlook existing technology that is proven, available and meets the requirements of the operators and regulators?

Keeping hydraulics in the game

Hydraulic systems are still at the cutting edge of subsea production technologies, with over 20,000 hydraulically operated wells currently producing, and set to continue to operate for decades to come. Control fluids will remain the lifeblood of subsea production, continuously evolving to meet the ever-challenging demands of wells and fields, such as depth, temperature, and hydrate management and field life extension through improved corrosion protection and material performance.

An even more fundamental element of their development lies in ensuring the sustainability and environmental performance of the fluids, bearing in mind our precious marine ecosystems. Environmental standards continue to evolve, and legislative bodies such as OSPAR and OCNS necessitate continued investment in ensuring a compliant product offering. Castrol’s dedicated team works across the value chain with regulators, OEMs and operators to ensure products that are near- and long-term compliant.

There is considerable hard work, research and investment going into developing these high performing global hydraulic fluids. Yet, there is heavy focus on an all-electric future. It is important to note that all-electric has a strong track record in key application areas, such as manifolds and some tree functionality. The technology also offers exciting potential capex and sustainable operations benefits. Yet, we expect that the majority of Christmas trees (XT) forecasted for the next few years will not be all-electric solutions as work continues to be focused on maturing the technology to a point of readily being adopted.  

When under pressure to offer potential optimal cash flow in combination with safe and sustainable operations – operators will be able to turn to existing proven system solutions and fluids which offer reliability to help maximise uptime and operational availability. They will more likely than not pursue solutions they can trust, and EH-Mux systems could be that compelling offer for the foreseeable future.

There are still technological challenges that could cast doubt on the near-term viability of all-electric. In contrast, high-performing hydraulically actuated valves, with decades of subsea use, are available now and continue to be developed with further optimised material selection, ever-increasing performance and reliability.

We can’t stand still with the technology available today. There is too much to explore and learn regarding efficiency opportunities and environmental benefits. We need to explore and deploy new technology when it’s mature and look both inside and outside our industry to see what technology we can harness that makes a genuine impact and is commercial viable.

Trusting proven solutions

There is a lot of interest around the transition to all-electric technology. However, a rapid move to all-electric could be counter-intuitive and time intensive. Undoubtedly, hydraulic subsea control fluids have a crucial role in underpinning reliability throughout field life for an industry looking to rationalise operations and reduce costs, especially on installed assets that will use hydraulic technology throughout the lifecycle.

But we cannot stand still with the technology that is working for now. The industry wants to focus on uptime, reliability of production, and, increasingly, sustainability. To meet these challenges, the sector needs to rely on existing, proven, viable and commercially feasible solutions that have done the job for over 40 years while we continue to invest and develop technology that will unlock the desired efficiencies and meet the challenges of tomorrow.

Alistair Mykura is subsea and energy OEM liaison manager at Castrol.