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Innovation gets real

Aberdeen’s fast-evolving FrontRow Energy Technology Group offers new hope for resource-constrained oilfield innovators currently working out of their garage or shed. Daydreamers need not apply, says technology-savvy oilfield service veteran Stuart Ferguson, the fledgling company’s chief executive.

The first of an anticipated raft of new arrivals at FrontRow Energy’s Dyce technology incubator just outside Aberdeen chimes perfectly with the group’s mission to foster enlightened oilfield innovation with a cost-reducing edge.

That is FrontRow chief executive Stuart Ferguson’s verdict on flow assurance specialist ClearWell, which is now relocating its headquarters from Southampton to Aberdeen following FrontRow’s acquisition in May of a 50% stake in the company from MSL Oilfield Services.

ClearWell employs surface-mounted, chemicals-free kit designed to send pulsed, high-frequency radio signals into a piping system and better manage troublesome scale build-up.

It will not remove the scale that is already there, but it should induce the micro-crystals that form to remain suspended in the produced flow rather than sticking to the internal pipe wall and potentially restricting oil and gas flow.

The system needed little introduction to Ferguson.


"We won’t take a punt on ‘the next cool thing’, we’ll do what we understand well. "
Stuart Ferguson, FrontRow

A decade or so ago, during his tenure as Weatherford International’s chief technology officer (see Leader of the pack), ClearWell resided for a time on the oilfield service major’s books before being let go in a batch of non-core disposals and, eventually, it found its way home to original owner MSL.

Extra bells and whistles, notably a satellite monitoring capability, have been added since, but simplicity remains the system’s strong suit, says Ferguson. And with the oilfield scale challenge intensifying, particularly in mature producing assets, he believes such technology may now be pushing against an open door.

“The industry today produces vastly more water than it does oil, and water brings with it a myriad of flow assurance, corrosion and other problems,” he explains.

“Once scale has formed you’ve got to do something about it. If you don’t prevent scale then you need to either mill it out or remove and replace the pipework, at huge cost.”

Industry estimates suggest the global market for oilfield scale inhibitor may reach $700 million by 2020.

“ClearWell removes the logistical element of handling chemicals, particularly for remote installations,” says Ferguson.

“The kit itself is quite small and really simple. We like it and look forward to supporting ClearWell’s ambitious growth plans.”

The company is looking to build out the installation set from the current 200 units, mainly located onshore in the US and Canada, by some 400%in five years.

Image NON-INVASIVE: The surface-mounted ClearWell units remove the logistical element of handling oilfield scale inhibitor chemicals, particularly in remote locations.

Martin Clark, chief executive of MSL – which retains a 50% interest in ClearWell – describes tying up with FrontRow as “a very positive step forward” in achieving that lofty goal.

“ClearWell fits well with the FrontRow mantra of doing very simple things,” notes Ferguson.

“There is no need to cut into the pipework or install anything downhole, so if someone has an application where they can’t make ClearWell work, for whatever reason, they just take it off – they are no worse off than they were before.”

But while installing the units onshore is pretty straightforward, employing them on high-value, high-rate wells offshore is a little more complicated, he admits.

“Because of all the surrounding metal pipework offshore, and the need to guard against earth leaks, fitting the units offshore is inevitably more tricky both for us and the oil companies.”

Nonetheless, he believes driving adoption and building out track record in the onshore markets of North America, the Middle East and Asia will raise confidence levels among offshore operators and encourage more to try it.

“We absolutely intend to put ClearWell into offshore markets too – it’s just a question of getting the adoption cycle right.

“I’ve wasted too much time in the past lecturing people about what they should do with technology,” adds Ferguson.

“It often comes down to just pitching things in the right way. We’ve all got the scars from trying to get new technology applied in this industry. Yes, it’s extremely difficult, but that’s often because the risks are really high for the end users - typically far higher than the cost of buying the product or service itself.”

Well set

FrontRow only came into being this January, with £10 million ($13 million) of Business Growth Fund backing.

At the same time, downhole diagnostics company Well-Sense and North Sea wellhead services provider Well-Centric – companies previously individually owned and operated by FrontRow team members - were absorbed into the newly structured corporate entity, representing a further £3 million investment.

Ferguson sees obvious parallels with the ClearWell fit-for-purpose approach elsewhere in FrontRow’s existing group companies and is confident others will emerge as the group expands in its chosen key sectors – well integrity, flow assurance, well intervention and other downhole technology. 

Sister company Well-Sense, for example, recently trialled simplified well intervention tooling for a distributed temperature survey in an Eagle Ford well in western Texas.

The company’s passive Fibreline Intervention (FLI) system, with its sacrificial fibre optic bobbin, was employed as a cost-effective alternative to wireline logging to determine cement job quality.

Dan SACRIFICIAL: Well-Sense technology director Dan Purkis with a low-cost Fibreline Intervention (FLI) tool, trialled this summer on a West Texas well.
Well-Sense co-founder and technology director Dan Purkis enthused afterwards that getting to this point had taken “two years of work and continuous development, but we’ve clearly demonstrated that wells can be temperature profiled over a number of days at low cost, without affecting drilling schedules”.

Ferguson adds: “The FLI tool needs just one man to run it and the cost of the equipment involved is very small compared to that of more robust systems qualified for high temperature, long-duration service.

"This is not a like-for-like replacement – quite the opposite – for what people are doing today, whether it be electronic sensing or permanently installed fibre optic monitoring.

"But for leak detection, for example, this is a really low-cost option because you simply drop a distributed acoustic sensor into the well and listen. That bobbin is not coming back, but the fibre will last for sufficient time, perhaps days, before failing so you can take the readings you want inexpensively.”

Ferguson is on the look-out for other budding oilfield technologists who may currently be working out of their shed, as Dan Purkis in fact did while developing FLI.

“Especially in oil companies these days, there are people with a pool of knowledge and ideas who have never had the opportunity or courage to go into business themselves. We want to hear from them,” says Ferguson.

“The group’s 50,000 square foot Dyce facility offers plenty of office space, conference rooms and three workshops, with complete back-office support to help relieve the start-up burden."

Ferguson adds that he and his senior colleagues at FrontRow – including chairman Graeme Coutts, non-executive director Colin Smith and group marketing director Tony Kitchener – are fully aligned in this venture and enjoy a good working chemistry that goes back many years.

“The accent remains very firmly on practical, cost-conscious innovation and customer engagement, not isolated blue-sky thinking,” he stresses.

“Collectively, we have a really hands-on approach and believe in sticking to things we know about.

“We won’t take a punt on ‘the next cool thing’, we’ll do what we understand well and focus on tools that will make a big difference.”

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