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Meet Loek Vreenegoor, General Manager for the Pipelines, Flow Assurance and Subsea team (PFAS)
Loek and his PFAS team help ensure that Shell’s pipelines don’t get clogged and affect production. His ideas might not always be strictly mainstream, but he’s convinced that thinking out of the box yields the best innovations.
Loek, General Manager for the Pipelines, Glow Assurance (PFAS) and Subsea team in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), likes to nickname his team the “A team”, it’s a “magic mix of young and old,” he says.
Tasked with providing specialist support to the laying of Shell’s network of pipelines that cover the globe, as well as helping ensure that they flow constantly, his team of 40 is divided between Rijswijk (Pipelines) and Amsterdam (Flow Assurance).
“We’re a mix of seasoned researchers with a lot of grey hair and young, eager people,” says Loek, likening their workplace to a club where people enjoy coming to work.
“I provide the vision and direction.” That vision, he says, is one focused on the future. “Innovation is crucial. We constantly update our support by conducting research on pipelines and flow assurance.”
We’re a mix of seasoned researchers with a lot of grey hair and young, eager people.
Loek gives an example of a typical pipelines issue: “Suppose you have to lay a pipeline across the bottom of a lake in a very cold environment. If the lake freezes, the ice pack can extend down to the bottom of the lake and cut through the pipe like a razor. How do you prevent that? By burying the pipe underground,” he explains. “We replicate the conditions, test whether a pipe can withstand them, and come up with a solution.”
The team’s Flow Assurance work ties in with this, because once the pipeline is in place you need to guarantee the throughflow. Extreme temperatures, length, diameter, and bends in the pipeline are all factors that can disrupt a constant flow. “What you don’t want is any uncontrollable churning of the mixture of oil, water and gas in the pipe,” Loek explains.
Maths and science
Loek’s interest in pipelines and throughflow first began during his time at Delft University of Technology, where he studied applied mathematics. “I wanted to study maths and was attracted to the application of mathematics to flows. It was a revelation to me that you could describe flows in mathematical terms.”
Loek graduated cum laude and went on to complete a PhD in gas and liquid bubbling flows. He was already in touch with Shell, as two flow experts from that company sat on the thesis adjudication committee, and so he had already given thought to whether he should join the organisation, but there were other contenders to consider. He soon joined Shell in the Equipment Engineering group at what was then KSLA (Royal Dutch/Shell Laboratory Amsterdam).
Then followed a period of assignments in Houston, firstly for one year as an exchange scientist, then for a three-year term with his family, where he worked on deepwater projects in the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil. “Living and working there was a fantastic experience. If another opportunity comes our way, we’ll certainly go back.”
Thinking outside the box
In his role as General Manager, Loek has a tendency to focus on ideas that sit just off of the mainstream. It’s not always an easy task given his team’s scientist tendency to look at issue through a strictly practical and logical framework. But the ambition to make Shell the world’s most competitive and innovative energy company is not one that Loek tackles lightly. It’s something he regularly reminds his team of, and they have results to show for it.
One example of such an odd idea is the peristaltic pipeline, an idea that Loek raised during a brainstorming session. “People laughed a bit, but we persevered and now a patent application has been filed.” He explains that the idea came to him as a result of the current trend to produce more cheaply and take more risks in the laying of pipelines.
“You need to seek ways in which a clogged pipeline lying at a depth of one kilometre can be efficiently unclogged. You can achieve this by getting the pipe to do the work itself – just like intestines do.”
Loek and his PFAS team have made a name for themselves with this out of the box thinking and their expertise, something which was utilised to the full during two recent oil spill incidents, one in the North Sea (Gannet) and the other off the Nigerian coast (Bonga).
“When the Gannet leak was detected, the leader of the team investigating it phoned us and said they needed our help,” Loek explains. “On the basis of very meagre information we advised them how to stabilise the pipeline. At Bonga they contacted us straightaway and we were able to give advice within a few hours.”
This shows the strength of his team. “People in Projects and Technology now know where to find us. When you’re consulted by the top level, it fills me with pride that we’re making a contribution that’s relevant for the whole business,” he says. “I see this as a sign of confidence in the magic mix of people in the PFAS team,” Loek concludes.