How to translate innovation from water to oil and gas

By Neil Poxon, Oxford Flow

Oxford Flow’s core innovation, a pressure reducing value (PRV) with a direct sensing piston actuator instead of a diaphragm, was, at first, launched to water networks (photo: Oxford Flow)

A typical offshore oil and gas platform has some 20,000 valves, with each valve being anything from 4 inches to 44 inches in diameter and worth USD 20,000 to 500,000. That’s 20,000 opportunities to drive offshore efficiency and productivity gains. But the oil and gas industry, understandably, has some of the toughest barriers to entry for new innovations. Stringent, industry-led safety regulations and certification as well as operator-specific requirements are all hurdles faced by companies looking to launch new products into the space.

In the proceeding decades, many of the hydrocarbon giants were heavily invested in research and development, with their own dedicated teams searching out the next innovation to stay ahead. But as in many cyclical industries, periods of low oil prices changed the focus and over the preceding years the onus on developing technology in-house has decreased.

Of course, technology must still be driven forward if only to keep up with competition – but in times of downturn innovation almost becomes more necessary to help drive efficiency and cost reduction. This has all led to a new openness for external developers to drive innovation.

An elegantly simple solution a hundred years in the making
Oxford Flow is a case in point. Our core innovation, a pressure reducing value (PRV) with a direct sensing piston actuator instead of a diaphragm, was, at first, launched to water networks, despite having been developed from research into jet engines. As well as minimising leaks, providing enhanced pressure control and improving uptime, in water networks it has also achieved an 80% reduction in cost of ownership for new projects, and 50% for existing schemes. Having not witnessed any substantial innovations for a hundred years, Oxford Flow’s PRV was a real boom for the industry and soon gained success from South America to the Middle East.

Having demonstrated such significant savings for the water industry in a relatively short space of time, it made sense to explore opportunities in complementary industries. In January 2019, a field trial was conducted with the gas distribution company SGN to test the capability of the value for use in gas. The trial revealed vastly improved pressure regulation, indicating its efficacy to provide more accurate and stable pressure to gas network customers. It also revealed a leap forward in the ease of installation. Whereas all but the smallest of traditional valves need to be craned out when replaced, Oxford Flow’s PRVs, being considerably lighter, can be put into place by hand, simultaneously reducing the equipment needed and man-hours too.

The Oxford Flow PRV’s compact construction significantly reduces weight and the need for expensive lifting equipment during installation and maintenance
The Oxford Flow PRV’s compact construction significantly reduces weight and the need for expensive lifting equipment during installation and maintenance (illustration: Oxford Flow)

The takeaway from the journey was clear. Key to exploring the possibility of new markets is openness to collaboration and the cross-fertilisation of ideas – in essence it’s a system approach to adapt to new conditions and hurdle what can often seem like insurmountable challenges.

In the case of Oxford Flow, once the team were able to get in front of the right people the core innovation spoke for itself opening the door for collaboration. Major operators were so intrigued that they took the decision to invest the time and resources needed to bring it to market. Fast forward 18 months and through a collaborative effort, the valve is now packaged in a completely different way. Certification against the American Petroleum Institute’s specifications is in the final stages, while the valve has already met the Pressure Equipment Directive and industry requirements to become suitable for use in oil and gas applications. What remains at the core is an elegantly designed solution that has stripped away much of the complexity to reduce cost and increase reliability.

A maintenance masterpiece
As the design removes the mechanical parts most prone to failure, it almost entirely eliminates the need for maintenance. This can offer a massive saving in comparison to a standard valve when you consider that a lot of valve servicing jobs will require a specialised workforce, specific equipment, offshore certification as well as nearby onshore workshop facilities.

While most valves may only need refurbishing and re-servicing every 4 years, not every valve will need servicing at the same time. This leaves the operator balancing the cost of downtime with the cost of bringing specialised crew onsite, and/or transporting valves back onshore. When you add in the cost of logistics, parts and tools, valve maintenance costs add up rapidly – sometimes totalling as much as 60% and 70% of the original cost. So, if operators only focused on replacing a platform’s mission critical valves with our valve, you would still stand to save millions of dollars.

Weight savings that unlock data benefits
Aging assets are common offshore, in use long after their original design life. In some cases, their designed functionality has also changed, for example with the drive for reduced personnel offshore. Safe, ongoing use of a platform depends on regular re-assessment of structural integrity.

At the same time, many replacement parts have now become substantially lighter and/or more compact. Valves are no different, and Oxford Flow’s water designs are ten times lighter than a standard valve. This not only helps manage the challenge of age-related deterioration but also helps to make space for new equipment and components. As a result, this new generation of valve includes additional sensors and meters allowing for two-way data transfer and better visibility in the control room. Operators will now be able to directly receive pressure readings, fluid quality and valve positioning. Providing more usable data as standard enhances accuracy and precision as well as offering better protection, making the valve less susceptible to any kind of loss of pressure containment.

Tackling fugitive emissions one valve at a time
Methane is 84 times more potent to the environment than carbon dioxide in the short term and as such is responsible for around 25% of manmade global warming. Up until recently, the extent of the oil and gas industry’s fugitive emissions problem had not been properly quantified. Through several studies by the EDF it is now known that around 13 million metric tons escape during the production of oil and gas every year. Worth around USD 2 billion, that’s enough to fuel 10 million homes for a year. Yet while pressure mounts on operators to reduce fugitive emissions, gas prices remain low, meaning only the lowest hanging technology fruit are likely to be taken forward.

While fugitive emissions is not an issue for water distribution, listening to feedback from potential oil customers, it became clear that the re-designed valve could offer an answer to this widespread industry problem. With no valve stem, the valve only has one possible, but highly unlikely, leak path – a substantial improvement on existing designs – and one that virtually eliminates the risk of fugitive emissions altogether. Feedback from early discussions suggests it was one of the design’s main draws, offering an opportunity for operators to make incremental improvements to fugitive emissions without the need for additional investment.

These are just some of the remarkable results that such an elegantly simple design has brought about. But the key lesson is not necessarily about simplifying engineering, but that sometimes stepping forwards is to look sideways, watch, learn and adapt.

Neil Poxon, Oxford Flow CEO
Neil Poxon, Oxford Flow CEO

Neil Poxon brings almost 30 years of experience in the global oil and gas industry. His career encompasses TR Oil Services, Petrolite, Champion Technologies and CETCO Oilfield Services. In 2006, as Managing Director, he transformed the Industry Technology Facilitator (ITF) from a not-for-profit into the market leading facilitator of oil technology. In 2012, he became CEO of ProSep & in 2015, Neil joined Peak Well Systems as Global Business Development Director. Appointment at Oxford Flow followed the acquisition of Peak Well by Schlumberger.