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Bill Maddock, Director of Subsea Systems InstituteOFFSHORE RESEARCH WITH SSI

How an Industry-Driven, Houston Based Institute is Supporting Safe and Efficient Offshore Development

05/04/2017 | By Claire Andersen

The Subsea Systems Institute (SSI), established in late 2015 through the RESTORE Act, is moving forward to bridge academic research and the oil and gas industry. Funded as one of the six Centers of Excellence created after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, SSI concentrates on improving the safety and sustainability of offshore oil and gas exploration and development.

Led by the University of Houston, SSI was created as a collaborative between UH, Rice University and the NASA Johnson Space Center to focus on engineering and technology research. Though still relatively young, SSI is working to retrofit technology from other industries to improve deep-water oil exploration systems. It was created in 2015 with funding from the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act, which required states affected by the oil spill conduct research to improve the sustainable and safe development of energy resources in the Gulf of Mexico.

SSI presents a unique environment for academic research to get feedback and support from local and international industry. Maddock said that SSI typically operates at the early technical readiness levels, where ideas are created and developed before being fully implemented.

“We believe the oil and gas industry will support and benefit from technology crossover from other industries, aerospace being one of those,” said Maddock. “There are a lot of synergies between space exploration and the offshore, particularly the deep water offshore.” 

One of those technologies is NASA’s neutral buoyancy lab (NBL). Usually used to train astronauts for spacewalks at the International Space Station, it is also available for commercial use. SSI has used the NBL to research and test its latest technology, as it provides a similar environment to that in deep water.

SSI has four ongoing projects, one of which focuses on automated underwater vehicles (AUV). In the oil and gas industry, AUVs are typically used to inspect deep sea pipelines and systems. SSI is exploring the possibility of using AUVs to also inspect petroleum tanks onshore, offering an alternative to the current costly and time-consuming inspections.

Another project, involving researchers from UH and Rice, focuses on coupling battery technology with super capacitors. The goal is to find an improved technology for powering and backing up devices offshore. 

SSI teams tend to be small, headed by one lead researcher and a combination of staff and students, Maddock said. The projects are unique in that they are mandated to be inter-institutional, multidisciplinary and have the support and endorsement of industry.  

“We want to ensure that we have as broad input as possible. It is very important that we are doing research at an academic level with direct connection to the needs of industry,” said Maddock.  

Maddock is focused on creating relationships with major companies operating offshore, both locally and internationally. This includes major operators, service companies, equipment manufacturers and consultants. 

In the future, Maddock hopes to attract sponsored research directly from industry.  

“Initially the key focus area will be the Gulf of Mexico. We want to see the SSI play a role in a global space and be an enduring entity that goes on for 15 years and beyond,” said Maddock.