Carbon capture illustration

Good cold country

E&T salutes engineering and innovation that have helped Norway to achieve impressive results in oil exploration, tunnelling and construction in an extremely cold climate.

Norway has always been a nation of fishermen, not traders, farmers, or burghers: the Gulf Stream, ice-free ports and the call of the sea made physical exploration more appealing. The country had the most intrepid Vikings and polar explorers, but no scientific geniuses, no Niels Bohrs (Danish) or Alfred Nobels (Swedish). The communities were tiny, roads were poor: there was a small urban middle class and no aristocracy - the class that could afford to pay for laboratories. The aristocrats were all in Denmark.

While many Norwegians did their own thing, it was formally ruled by Denmark for 400 years until 1814; and then spent another 90 years unwillingly yoked to Sweden. Danish Copenhagen was the capital of the joint kingdom: siphoning the money and the talent. Today, Copenhagen has the air of a metropolis without an empire, a bit like Vienna, but it's a beautiful, confident place - while Oslo still looks a bit provincial, and feels small.

But things are getting better.

Oil boom

Oslo's very modern but rather unattractive 21st century architecture gives a clue that the country has enjoyed a recent upswing - and it's due to oil. Norway is one of the world's top five oil exporters. Much of the export income from this is saved for a rainy day and put into the state pension fund, which is one of the largest financial players on the market, worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Money is increasingly being spent on research. This has given Norwegians a platform, as it were, to become a nation of innovators - above all, but not exclusively, in the oil and gas industry.

A survey in Teknisk Ukeblad, a local science magazine, shows that Statoil is the company Norwegian engineering graduates above all want to work for. Partly state-owned, the flagship oil firm is the keystone in a petroleum engineering arc of expertise that stretches from drill specialist SMEs in Bergen, in the south, via rig manufacturers in the oil capital Stavanger, to the cryotechnology department of the University of Tromsø.

According to Jan-Oddvar Sørnes of Bodø University's business school: "Statoil is the leader in offshore oil technology. The country of 4.5 million people is the third largest exporter of oil industry hardware and has 40 years of offshore experience on the Norwegian shelf, starting with the first speculative North Sea oil finds in 1969."

In the beginning, it was a wildcatters' gamble: men perched on rigs in gale force winds thinking they were at the end of the world. But, 15 billion barrels later, it can safely be said it worked out. Along the way the Norwegians built the Troll oil platform, the biggest man-made structure on the planet, with enough steel to make 15 Eiffel Towers. They also learnt to plumb the deep seas, once finding 100m extraction a challenge but now able to raise oil from depths of 3,000m, according to geologist Terje Hagevang, CEO of Sagex Petroleum.

Drilling in the ice

These days, Norway wants to extend its expertise to start drilling in the Arctic which, according to a recent US geological survey, may hold up to a quarter of the world's remaining stores of undiscovered hydrocarbons.

It is not an easy task. The environment can be hellish - storms form in minutes over increasingly open seas, characterised by gale force winds, huge waves, and frequent ice and snow showers. Ola Ravndal, an arctic ship expert at Statoil, observes the areas are remote, and lack infrastructure.

"There is less tarmac than in an average English supermarket in an area three times the size of France." Therefore, ships have to be multifunctional and staff versatile. "You can't just fly in experts as you can on the Norwegian shelf."

To one outer extremity, the Jan Mayen island area, helicopter transfers will take several hours according to Sagex's Hagevang, who is bidding for licences in the area - taxing even the most advanced helicopters. Floating moored helipad ships will be required en route.

Then, depending on how far north and east, there is the ice, which comes in drifts and in packs, which can be "as thick as concrete, especially if its multi-year ice", and can shift direction in minutes due to unpredictable wind. Fixed rigs won't work: oil production is going to have to be a hit-and-run affair. When an iceberg - "game over" - hovers into view, the production ship has to detach itself from the oil pipes, and move quickly.

Towing icebergs out of harm's way by tugs (as in Alaska) will not be an option in areas of the usual cracked mosaic sea ice that is 1m thick. The darkness that affects the Arctic north for four or five months of the year won't help, but Ravndal says each production ship would be attended by an extra icebreaker to facilitate the "get away". Unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned submarines on permanent surveillance in the area to detect icebergs early could play a part.

Arctic for sale

This is looking a decade ahead, because only one oil field has opened up in the Norwegian or Russian Arctic; but both nations are auctioning blocs for outside bidders. Canada and the US have been slow to open up the Arctic; Russia does not have Norway's offshore expertise.

Experts expect that the oil will come from many small finds, due to the original Jurassic geology of the area. Numerous test drillings will have to take place, probably with autonomous underwater drill robots rather than the usual surface drill-ships: unaffected by weather, they can also be deployed in large numbers to maximise exploration. Statoil or its partners are also developing more durable steel, enhanced strength drill bits, non-brittle polymers for cable insulation in cold weather, and better arctic clothing. The production ships will be closed to the -45°C temperatures and round- and shallow-keeled to avoid being squeezed by blocks of ice (on the principles as the great 19th explorer Nansen's pioneering arctic sailing vessel Fram).

Tankers that pick up oil from production ships will have ice-breaker capabilities. Natural gas piped straight to shore facilities via undersea pipes, as expected at the giant Shtokman field, will have anti-freeze added to avoid ice plugs.

With oil spills being one of the greatest fears - it won't biodegrade in the freezing temperatures - one company is pioneering detector cages full of wired up mussels that use the creatures' heartbeat irregularities to check oil spills from pipes before they become major.

For the bigger problem - that Arctic oil makes the world warmer - Statoil is one of the pioneers in carbon capture: pumping CO2 from power stations back into depleted oil and gas fields, which will keep the former petroleum extraction geologists employed. Norway, having got rich by taking the bad stuff out, will remain prosperous by putting bad stuff back in.

The country's arctic adventure is still going strong, and they aim to stay on top of the game.

Tunnels

Thanks to Norway's cold climate and very mountainous terrain, it's also a country of expert tunnel and underground excavation engineers.

Norway has athletics stadiums underground - most famously at Lillehammer, site of the 1994 Winter Olympics. There is, near Oslo, an air traffic control centre, factories, and even dairy production plants below the surface. In several towns there are waste treatment facilities: two plants treat 90 per cent of Trondheim's effluent.

Some underground caverns are filled with hydrocarbons, stocking fuel waiting for export. Other caverns house top secret defence installations, probably well known to Norway's close Nato allies, the US and UK. There are also hundreds of road and train tunnels linking tongues of land between fjords.

Eivind Grøv welcomes me to his office at the Norwegian National Technical University, situated on a hill overlooking the historic university city of Trondheim, two degrees south of the Arctic circle and thick with fairytale snow. Vice president of the International Tunnelling Association, geotechnical engineer Grøv actually works for SINTEF, the research foundation attached to the university. 

We are talking because the Singaporean government has called on Grøv and several SINTEF colleagues to bring all these bits of expertise, acquired at separate locations across a sparsely populated country, and concentrate the skills and experience on one focus: to design a city underneath the surface of the tiny, crowded but immensely prosperous tropical island-state. 

Deep commercial confidentiality surrounds the project, said to be the first of its kind: Montreal and Toronto have underground shopping malls, but Singapore is thinking of putting much of its essential infrastructure aground, including structures related to its port, the world's biggest.

While he is not allowed to go into any detail of how the underground city is going to look, he is happy to talk of the benefits of underground facilities.

Underground caverns

Underground caverns offer stable, cool temperatures without electric cooling: good for comestibles storage and human activities. They stay cool in summer and warm in winter. They are less vulnerable to terrorism than overground structures, leak-free and out of sight, replacing vast overground storage tanks that would otherwise be an eyesore. They are perfect for storing hydrocarbons and industrial waste. And, of course, they free up space.

Because of the extremely mountainous terrain, Norway has more experience than most countries in tunnelling. Its small size and relatively low historic budgets, alongside ambitious tunnelling goals, have made Norwegian excel at effective economy solutions. Putting plates affixed to the tunnel with bolts to improve stability in certain key places rather than the vastly more expensive concrete lining.

So where next? We look at a world map. China's overcrowded cities could be a possibility, a colleague of his suggests later.

"You don't need mountains to create caverns - it's a myth," Grøv says, predicting that much of the world's industrial infrastructure will be moving underground this coming century.

With the world's population almost seven billion, and Asia's mega-cities growing by the day, any space saved overground is going to be a good thing.

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