For over 30 years Tyneside has been a hot bed of innovation in the offshore oil and gas sector with world-leading companies developing new subsea technologies ahead of their global competitors.
But in recent years competitors in Norway and Brazil – backed by their respective Governments - have begun to threaten the North East, and UK’s dominance.
Now work is set to begin on a new centre of innovation and excellence on Tyneside aimed at creating the world-leading subsea technologies of the future.
The Neptune National Centre for Subsea and Offshore Engineering will be the first of its kind in the UK, bringing together industry and academia to create a world-class engineering research facility.
It is being developed on the north bank of the River Tyne on the Shepherd Offshore-owned Neptune Energy Park.
Newcastle University is leading the £7m development and project lead Professor Nick Wright, pro-vice-chancellor for research and innovation at the university, said work on the ambitious project was due to begin next month.
“Robertson Construction were appointed in August and works are due to begin in October,” he said.
“We hope to have the main building completed by spring, although it will be some months later before the highly specialist facilities such as the main testing chamber are installed.
“This is an incredibly exciting project - bringing together industry and academia to create a unique facility that will significantly enhance research capacity, not just at Newcastle University but in the UK as a whole.
“We have a long tradition of applied engineering research focussed on the marine sector – reflecting the history and tradition of both the university and the North East region.
“This new national centre will act as a place for industry and academia to interact, providing crucial infrastructure for emerging research opportunities.
“It will also provide a unique training ground for highly skilled graduates, addressing key skill shortages currently faced by UK industry.”
The new 7,000sq ft centre will sit on a 0.4 hectare site at the north end of the Neptune Energy Park, where the land, which once housed a fuel tank and fuel storage facilities, has been decontaminated as part of a £2.2m clean up by Shepherd Offshore.
Shepherd Offshore director Freddy Shepherd, the former chairman of Newcastle United, said: “The Neptune Energy Park is proving to be a huge success and we welcome the Neptune subsea centre to the site.
“It will bring added value to what we have in mind for the park and that includes proposals for a 4,000 tonnes port-side crane, which will probably be the largest of its kind in Europe.”
The project has received £3m from the Higher Education Funding Council for England from the Catalyst Fund and matched with £2m from Newcastle University and £2m from members of Subsea North East.
Also supported by Newcastle City Council, the centre will include Europe’s largest test tank for subsea equipment and unique hyperbaric chamber and environmental test facilities - capable of testing technologies and materials at temperatures and pressures equivalent to those found at the very deepest ocean depths.
Andrew Hodgson, managing director of Wallsend-based remotely-operated vehicle manufacturer SMD and chairman of Subsea North East, said: “With the North East of England being the home to some of the world’s leading subsea businesses, it is crucial that we maintain our technological leadership.
“The UK accounts for 45% of the global subsea supply serving markets across the world, and with this market forecast to double in the next five years the subsea sector remains critical to the North East’s future economic success.
“We are therefore delighted that the significant progress at the Neptune centre is not only putting the physical capacity in place, but is also already generating improved linkages between academia, business and government to accelerate innovation.”
Paul Charlton, chair of the Subsea North East Research and Technology theme group and recently appointed board member of the National Subsea Research Initiative said: “The establishment of the Neptune Centre on the north bank of the River Tyne is excellent news.
“This will be great for the region, since it will draw engagement with and investment from operators, subsea system suppliers and supply chain companies who are looking to enhance their technology position in a market that is set to grow 20% year on year for the next five years.”
George Rafferty, chief executive of Durham-based NOF Energy said: “The Neptune National Centre will become a marvellous asset for the North East and help continue the region’s legacy of engineering excellence in the subsea and offshore sectors.
“It will also help to keep the eyes of world’s energy industry on the North East bolstering its established research, education and training expertise, which is driven by the region’s cluster of subsea companies in partnership with institutions such as Newcastle University.”
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Taking the technology into other markets
While the Neptune centre will have a strong focus on developing new technologies to recover deep-water hydrocarbons it will also look at technologies for other potential markets.
Prof Wright explained the thought process behind its creation: “The planet’s population is set to increase by 50% in the next 40 years, meaning mankind’s need to secure additional resources to support this growth is pressing.
“With 75% of the planet covered in water the focus of attention is turning to underwater reserves. It’s inevitable that mankind will be more involved in the oceans.”
Work is already under way to create pharmaceuticals from tiny ocean organisms, there is the potential for further drug discoveries and the university is researching how to create biodiesel from algae.
Many of the university’s academic disciplines will be involved in the Neptune, such as: electrical, mechanical and computing engineering, marine sciences and even civil engineering.
Prof Wright added: “Currently there is little in-depth research into the deeper oceans – lower than 4,000 metres – and 75% of all oceans are deeper than that. Our aim is to develop new technologies to operate in those depths.
“There will be research into key things such as the reliability of materials in a subsea environment.
“For how long can high voltage electric cables survive under water? Large operators want assurances on reliability; they have to know it’s going to work in 20 years’ time.”
Andrew Hodgson, chairman of Subsea North East, expects the Neptune centre to grow rapidly, moving from an initial investment of £7m to £30m over the next 10 years.
He foresees Neptune as being a centre for ideas and innovation with subsea members working in collaboration with academics, students and interacting with entrepreneurs, engineers and companies in the North East supply chain.
SMD, which developed to serve the oil and gas and telecommunications industry, is now active in new markets, including underwater mining.
It recently completed the world’s first deep sea mining machine which is being delivered as part of a £60m contract to extract copper, diamonds and gold from an undersea volcano.
The 310-tonnes Bulk Cutter is one of the three machines SMD will build to fulfil the contract with Canadian company Nautilus. The machines will operate at depths of 1,600m off the coast of Papua New Guinea.