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Floating a big idea
Dutch engineer Barend Pek is part of a team helping turn the revolutionary idea of cooling natural gas to liquid at sea into reality – boosted by early funding from the Shell GameChanger programme.
Barend Pek has been working on FLNG for well over a decade
Barend Pek is a Dutch engineer and expert at turning natural gas, the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, into liquid.
Advanced technology cools the gas to -162° Celsius (-260° F), condensing its volume 600 times for easy shipment overseas.
“This approach makes it economic to produce gas from fields located far from markets,” says Barend, General Manager for Shell LNG Development. “At Shell we have around five decades of experience with LNG technology – but our most exciting project is now under construction.”
He is part of a team of pioneering engineers who have received support to develop the innovative idea of liquefying gas at sea, in extreme conditions and away from existing infrastructure over the last decade.
“It’s simply an engineer’s dream!” he says.
LNG at sea
Traditionally, liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants have been built on land. Finding a way to move the production and processing out to sea where the gas is located would bring huge new energy resources within reach. It could also help to avoid the potential environmental impact of constructing and operating a plant on land, including laying pipelines to shore and building other infrastructure.
The idea of creating a floating LNG (FLNG) plant dates back to the 1970s, says Barend, when Shell pioneered the world’s first floating production facility for oil.
It was not until 1997, however, that Shell engineers began to work seriously on developing a floating production vessel for liquefied natural gas. The Shell GameChanger programme, which provides support for ideas on how to overcome energy challenges, funded an early study into the feasibility of building such a giant floating facility. This was a critical step in the project’s development.
Time, teamwork and technology
A scale model of the vessel was tested in simulated wind and waves
Barend joined the Shell team working on FLNG in 2001. Around 600 engineers spent an estimated 1.5 million man-hours in designing this groundbreaking technology. Hundreds more are now building it.
“Many of the technologies on the FLNG facility have already been used successfully onshore,” says Barend. “The innovation was in combining them.”
By 2011 Shell was ready to begin building the world’s first floating LNG project. Known as Prelude FLNG, the facility will operate at the Prelude gas field, 200 km off the north-west coast of Australia. Construction of the facility began in 2012.
“The toughest challenge was factoring in the weather,” says Barend. “We had to design a facility that can operate in severe storms.
These can be category 5 cyclones off the coast of Australia, which have sustained wind speeds of 200 km/h (125 mph) and gusts as high as 280 km/h (175 mph).”
The facility will run the length of more than four soccer fields and weigh roughly six times as much as the largest aircraft carrier.
Its sheer size will help it to withstand very high winds. And it will be secured in place by one of the largest mooring systems in the world.
A 93-metre (305-foot) high cylinder, or turret, will run vertically through one end of the facility, anchored to the seabed by four groups of mooring lines.
Instead of risking damage by resisting the force of wind and waves, the facility can give into the force and turn freely around the turret.
Prelude FLNG has just one-quarter the surface area of an onshore LNG plant of similar capacity. And its standardised modular design can easily be adapted for other FLNG projects.
“Floating LNG will help the world meet its growing energy needs,” says Barend. “It is the key that can unlock gas resources that were previously too remote, difficult or costly to develop.”
Prelude is expected to produce 5.3 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) of liquids: 3.6 mtpa of LNG – enough to easily satisfy Hong Kong’s annual natural gas needs – 0.4 mtpa of liquefied petroleum gas and 1.3mtpa of condensate (equivalent to 35,000 bbl/d).
Operators of other gas field projects like the large Browse field operated by Woodside, are now considering Shell FLNG as the development concept for their fields.