Moonshot Idea: Satellites May Be Used to Control Undersea Valves

Chemtech Industrial Valves Ltd., of Mumbai, India, wants to develop a moonshot product: a valve for underwater pipelines that can be actuated from anywhere in the world by satellite.

The company believes that this capability would be an significant control enhancement. Authorized personnel could operate satellite-actuated valves near installation sites, from ships or aircraft, at a company's headquarters, or pretty much anywhere connections can be established with a satellite.


India launched a communication satellite in January. Chemtech's plan to develop a satellite-actuated underwater valve would use a platform like this one to transmit signals. Credit: India Space Research Organization

Underwater valves are used primarily in petroleum pipelines, many of which extend considerable distances at great depths. One of the world's longest subsea pipelines, for example, is the Langeled Pipeline, a venture of ExxonMobil, Statoil, and Royal Dutch Shell.

Completed in 2006, the structure traverses 725 miles along the Norwegian continental shelf, transporting 900 billion cu-ft of natural gas annually from Norway's Ormen Lange offshore field to Easington in the U.K. The pipeline, which lies as deep as 3.2 mi in some areas, accounts for 20 percent of the U.K.'s yearly natural gas supply.

Chemtech representatives did not respond to telephone calls or email requests for comment about the valve program. In previous statements, the company said valves produced in this "dream project" would likely be controlled through one of India's orbiting satellites. The country has launched dozens of satellites in the past 40 years, with the most recent one being a communication satellite that was initiated last January.

If Chemtech successfully develops a satellite-actuated underwater valve, subsea pipeline operators would realize many benefits. The most obvious would be instantaneous control of operations anywhere in the world.

By consolidating actuation to a technical center of specialists, such operations as production monitoring, maintenance alerts, and routine diagnostics could be expedited. Satellite actuation might eliminate, or at least reduce, the need to maintain extensive on-site quarters. Technical divers would spend less time underwater, and field infrastructure could be smaller and less exposed to bad weather and other concerns.

It might not even be necessary to actuate valves exclusively by satellite.

Unmanned geostationary aircraft and airships are among the platforms under consideration for use in transmitting and receiving Internet signals in parts of the world with no web infrastructure or where more capacity is needed. Some of these aircraft would be lightweight enough to fly for a year or more without landing, powered by solar-array and fuel-cell technologies that convert sunlight into electricity for their motors.

Others could stay aloft for a day or more at a time, with their flight commands delivered via satellite from remote operators and local crews available for refueling, maintenance, and other tasks.

Chemtech's work in this area might be a key step in transferring the digital technology and benefits of remote monitoring systems, which are staples of progressive plant operations, to heavy industrial equipment.

The idea of transmitting signals to actuate underwater valves certainly isn't new. In 1989, Ferranti Subsea Systems Inc. of Sugar Land, Texas, received a U.S. patent (No. 4,805,657) for a technique of opening or closing an underwater pipeline valve via individually coded acoustic signals, transmitted by ship or helicopter, to a receiver mounted on the valve.

The patent covered a technique whereby a predetermined torqueing force is applied to a shaft coupled to a valve stem before it is submerged. Accidental rotation of the shaft is prevented by the mechanical connection of an explosive bolt.

When the acoustic signal is transmitted to the receiver, it releases stored electrical energy that detonates the bolt, breaking the mechanical connection and allowing the torqueing force to rotate the valve stem and open or close the valve, depending on the application.

The benefit of the technique is the rapid and precise opening or closing of a valve. The actuation is a one-time event, though, as the patent literature states that if the valve needs to be reopened or reclosed, a diver can do so.

No matter how Chemtech's development effort turns out, it's likely other valve manufacturers will apply digital commands to underwater valve actuation.

There are challenges to consider, of course: digital commands can be hacked, satellites occasionally malfunction or are affected by solar storms, connections may be lost at inopportune moments, and people, even specialists, make mistakes.

Nevertheless, it could be just a matter of time until digital subsea actuation techniques, whether by satellite, underwater robots, or other platforms, become standard operating procedure for pipeline valves.

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