Deep ocean technology

The Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas has a state-of-the-art ocean simulation lab that tests deep ocean technology.


The Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, has a state-of-the-art ocean simulation lab that tests deep-ocean technology.

We go into the lab for a look.

The testing here in the OSL is primarily to validate that the piece of equipment is going to be safe to use.

By and large, that is what we are doing.

We also do some basic research where we're looking to prove out new technologies.

That's a little bit a smaller portion of what we do, but the majority of the work we're doing is to verify that the piece of equipment that's going to go down into the ocean or maybe up into space or down into a deep oil well is safe to use and will perform.

A lot of the equipment that goes into the ocean or anywhere else, for that matter, is under a lot of stress.

It's seeing environments that you don't normally see and can be tested anywhere except for specific labs like the Ocean Simulations Lab.

We simulate an ocean environment that can stress these devices to their maximum and beyond, so that when they are used in the ocean, or if they're used in different systems, we can be assured that they've been highly tested and will last many, many years.

In the past, we've seen failures of things in the ocean or on land or anywhere else, for that matter, and we've learned from those things.

We bring them in here.

We test them to extremes, the highest extremes that we can, and once in a while, if we are lucky, we get a chance to break it at the end just to see just how tough it really is.

The oil country tubular goods, which are all your pipes that go down into oil and gas wells, they have a collapse rating that we need to verify for all mill runs of that type of pipe.

That is external pressure, hydrostatic pressure, that's applied to the pipe until failure to verify that all of the materials coming off that mill run will collapse at something greater to that minimum stated value.

For instance, if it's 5,000 PSI, we know that those pipes have been tested and collapse at actually a greater range.

It's very important that the piping under the sea that is transporting the oil stays at certain temperatures.

We want that oil to stay hot.

We don't want it to cool down rapidly because that creates hydrates.

It creates wax, paraffins that clog pipes.

It's very bad news.

We saw this during some of the accidents that we've seen out there.

So the testing that we're doing here for the insulation of this piping is very important.

I can give you an example.

Here we have a basic 10- to 12-ounce Styrofoam cup.

Well, when you subject it to sea pressure, just like you would the insulation that's going around these pipes out there, it shrinks, and it shrinks down about this small.

So here you can see the difference.

This is only a few thousand pounds of pressure that has shrunk this cup down to 2 ounces from 10.

So as you can see, it's lost all of its insulating properties, and obviously, it's not going to work anymore.

The same thing would happen to the insulation that surrounds the pipe out there that's transporting the oil across the sea floor.

So a large part of what we do is verifying that those oil country tubular goods meet their collapse rating, and you'll see us tape the ends of the pipes to make sure that they hold out the pressure from the inside.

We run them into our tanks.

We pressurize them up, and you'll hear an audible clunk as that pipe collapses.

And then we'll record that pressure, provide the dimensional data to the clients, and that way, they have the record that, yea, verily, that piece of equipment was validated for the service it was going to be put in.

One of my other sections that I manage here at Southwest Research Institute designs and builds submersibles for clients.

We built the Alvin submersible titanium hull.

It's one of the oldest research submersibles that the US uses.

It's owned by the US Navy, operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

The original Alvin was designed for about 4,500 meters, and they wanted a new one that goes to 6,500 meters.

It covers about 99 percent of the ocean, everything but the hadal zones, the deep trenches that are out there in the ocean.

So this one is able to cover the vast majority of the ocean and do the research now.

Now, one of the things that our engineering group is able to do is the testing here using the OSL facilities, which adds value to our customers because not only can we do the engineering, the fabrication, the design, the analysis work, but then we can bring it over here and do the testing to validate that everything works.

We get with third-body certifying agents, and we get them to certify that we did everything according to the rules, and we deliver a final product to our customer.

Most of the things that we've done have been to improve our clients' products.

We're here to benefit government and industry and our neighbors out here in San Antonio and around the world.

If it's been at the bottom of the ocean or if it's been to deep space, parts of that have probably been through this lab.

We're here to make life better for everybody, safer for everybody and to do it cheaply and as a not-for-profit organization.

And to that end, that's what the OSL is doing here.

We protect man when they go to the ocean for pressure vessels, for equipment.

We protect man and the environment from hazardous actions that might be caused by doing the research or the exploration that we're doing in the deep ocean and, indeed, in deep space as well.

So when we're testing these things to make sure that they're going to work once they're put into service, mankind benefits from that effort just by saving in cost by reducing the risk and making sure that we understand what we're doing before we actually get out there and do it.