Pioneering researchers from the Centre for Offshore Foundation Systems (COFS) are developing new benchmarks for deep water engineering and exploration to unravel the complexities and unique characteristics of the North West Shelf ocean floor.
Heralded as one of the most significant oil and gas production fields in the world with deep and expansive untapped reservoirs which will power the future energy needs of the planet for years to come, the North West Shelf also offers some of the most intriguing seabed challenges.
"The North West Shelf is a particularly carbonate substance – carbonate silt and carbonate sand - this is different to other deep sea exploration sites in the world", according to Professor Christophe Gaudin, Deputy Director of COFS, based at The University of Western Australia.
With much of the scientific understanding of deep sea exploration benchmarked in the Gulf of Mexico within a soft clay seabed, little knowledge could be transferred and adapted to the unique North West Shelf environment, creating a vast opportunity for revolutionary research and the pioneering of new standards for the oil and gas industry in Australia.
Founded by Professor Mark Randolph in 1997, COFS was set up to better understand the particularity of Australian soils and to develop adequate foundation solutions.
Within the last decade research understanding of the North West Shelf seabed has deepened greatly through the work of COFS, largely with the use of the innovative centrifuge facility - the only such facility in Australia.
“The centrifuge facility is not just a testing facility, it is a modelling facility, providing a deep understanding of how the soil behaves and how any geotechnical structure will perform,” Christophe said.
"We can assist companies in offshore geotechnical design, understanding and characterising soil-structure interaction, providing performance data and developing new guidelines and procedures to design a variety of offshore structures.
“Some of this work can be done elsewhere but what we have at COFS at the University is certainly leading edge, and it is backed by very strong technical support in software, electronic and mechanical engineering as well as a wealth of brilliant academics working in the team."
As the manager of the centrifuge team, Christophe contributes his research focuses on centrifuge modelling techniques, suction caisson, anchoring systems, soil characterisation, soil-pipe interaction and hybrid foundations.
He said COFS is the most active centrifuge facility in the world for both industry sponsored research and academic research.
Upon being lured from France with his wife and two sons, by the academically and internationally renowned COFS six years ago, Christophe was assigned the task of restructuring and gearing the Centre towards delivering more valuable outcomes to industry.
“When I first started, only 10-15 per cent of the centrifuge activity at COFS was in partnership with industry, but there was clearly a demand here in Western Australia with all the new offshore developments. There were opportunities for us to get involved, especially as COFS has developed a world leading expertise in offshore geotechnics, beside our centrifuge capability. The problem was industry didn’t know about us,” Christophe said.
Now industry and academic research are evenly matched and the COFS team has worked on all the major pipeline developments of the North West Shelf, collaborating with all the major resource companies.
Through the availability and technical capability of the centrifuge facility COFS has also transformed standards in the industry so that using the facility has become a routine tool for North West Shelf pipeline design.
"Using the centrifuge facility at COFS to assist in pipeline design is now routine and we get very positive feedback when industry learns about what we can provide. Field testing, common onshore, is extremely costly offshore, and the centrifuge facility offers a very valuable alternative in gathering information at a much reduced cost and in a much shorter time", Christophe said.
"We want to outreach to industry and we encourage our industry partners to visit us here so they can see the facility and learn about what we can offer."
Commercial sensitivity and confidentiality exists for much of the work, however Christophe said most companies relinquished confidentiality on the data after two to three years, allowing academics at COFS to publish research furthering the understanding of the unique North West Shelf seabed and the oil and gas industry in Australia.
The future for COFS looks as promising with new research projects moving towards subsea systems in deeper waters and foundation solutions for offshore wind turbines, which are increasing in popularity in countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore and within Europe, where land space is limited. These are novel areas in which the COFS and its centrifuge facilities will surely play a leading role.
UWA Energy and Minerals Institute
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