Head of Clariant Oil Services, Doug Hayes, explains the company’s innovation philosophy and how this adds value to customer operations
“Better, faster and more efficient.” This, according to chemical firm Clariant, is the philosophy by which it approaches innovation. While not unique to the oil and gas industry, it is a helpful maxim to guide both blue-sky innovation and market-led product development – not least during the pressured times in which the industry finds itself.
Clariant’s head of Oil Services, Doug Hayes, agrees that in tough times, companies have to be bolder and more innovative. “We’re very much committed to the innovation side of the business. Some companies may have held back a bit and really focused just on operational efficiencies, but we feel like Clariant is taking the lead, certainly in the chemical sector of the oil business, and saying: ‘You know what, we’re going to invest more in innovation.’”
While all operators are essentially chasing the same goal – cost-effectiveness – the innovation and strategy behind this tends to take one of two approaches. “It can play out in just cost reductions, looking at a change in the chemistry that’s lower cost and a high-efficiency application,” Hayes says. “Or it can play out as looking at it completely differently and taking a novel approach to how we address a problem, either from an application or from a product point of view.”
Joining in at Johan
Most recently, and featured in the September edition of InnovOil, is Clariant’s agreement with Statoil to supply production chemicals for its Johan Sverdrup project. The deal was partly the result of a long history of collaboration between the two firms, Hayes says. “For the last 10 or 15 years with Statoil we’ve been a primary supplier of production chemical additives and services and so we’ve developed a very good working relationship… We do joint development activities with applications for products that enhance production efficiency and they rely, to some degree, on our innovation and research group to help solve some of the key issues with production and optimise production efficiency.”
The breadth and complexity of the project is likely to involve closer co-operation than ever before. “It’s probably a little more upfront in the design phase than we’ve typically seen with a lot of operators,” Hayes explains. “A lot of operators like to do that work before they pull in their suppliers. In this case, because we have such a close working relationship with Statoil, they’ve pulled us in and involved our engineers upfront.” This hands-on approach will see the firm engaged in developing not only the products, but the systems, the injection processes and the application techniques. “In some cases, it may even involve modifications of current products so that they’re more effective on that platform when it starts up,” he suggests.
While this level of integration might be unusual for the industry, it is not a departure from Clariant’s approach to collaborative projects. Innovation projects rely on clear co-operation: “If you’re in isolation, you have a very difficult time really solving the problem of your business partners,” Hayes adds.
Yet Sverdrup is not the only technical feat – globally, there is no shortage of challenges. Hayes points to issues encountered by Canadian operators in need of new ways to treat heavy oil, while shale producers look to innovative scrubbing technologies to tackle hydrogen sulphide in the Eagle Ford formation. Deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil also represent frontiers for chemical innovation. Hayes comments: “With high pressure/high temperature [HPHT] the type of application required to run capillary streams and umbilical streams down through very cool water, you have to have a very high-spec product that will meet certain qualifications, not just for technical performance [but] purely an application point of view. It’s very much an area where we do a lot of innovation.” It is also a region which is still in need of new solutions – the company is working on refining the second and third generation of successful products, largely because, Hayes says, “we feel like the ‘apex technology’ is not fully developed.” While incremental improvements can sometimes be made in a matter of months, more fundamental work and game-changing chemical creation can take a much longer timeframe, often up to three or four years. At present, the company’s longer-term research is examining multiple aspects of enhanced oil recovery (EOR), including everything from additives and surfactants for sweep efficiency and stimulation to solutions to clean up and raise productivity from older wells. Again, Hayes makes the point that these efforts are collaborative: “If we’re working with an operator in a joint development and perhaps with a polymer provider, we’re able to come up with the right chemistry and application techniques to recover an additional % of oil from the reservoir.”
Staying on the cutting edge
Within the challenge of this kind of long-term research lie the roots of new innovation. In improving and refining a chemical platform, new and interesting discoveries are often made. “It really is sometimes the result of trying to improve the efficacy of an existing product and then we come upon some possibilities when building off of that platform and that can lead to that next level of innovation,” he says. “We’re also looking at some, I would call them ‘breakthrough-type’ technologies, but those are longer-term projects,” he adds, “They’re a little more high-risk, but we always like to be out there on the perimeter, looking at what’s new, what’s unusual.” Key to this process is input from the Clariant Excellence Innovation group, a troupe of “black belts” working between Clariant business lines, on the lookout for interesting synergies or novel applications. This is cemented by a global innovation centre based in Frankfurt, where “there are about 500 scientists we have access to, so we’re able to look at what we’re doing in the oil sector that could have some correlation to what’s going on in other Clariant business units from a chemistry point of view.”
Using its global workforce to solve unusual problems is also an interesting way to foster new innovation, and taking personnel from one environment and applying their expertise to another can often produce some unexpected results. “When we bring in this expertise from overseas, they’re not bound by the local application bias, if you will,” Hayes enthuses, “They step out of the box, they look at it completely different. The only challenge is that there are people who want to hire the person you just flew in from across the world because of their unique view on problem solving!”
One thing made clear is that Clariant’s approach to innovation is as much philosophical as it is market-driven. “We have to go into this from an innovation point of view,” Hayes impresses, “I think we have to stay right out there on the cutting edge in this industry to be able to deliver to what the operators expect. Because if we just do the same thing that our competitors have been doing, and try to shave just a little bit of money off of the cost, we really didn’t solve the real problem.” This is a bold view, and one which is all the more admirable in an already difficult price environment. But with no shortage of problems, and a constant demand for better, faster and more efficient solutions, it is a strategy which will surely pay off.