Safer vessels, pipelines and platforms

The Shuji Aihara Group, at the University of Tokyo, works with Brazilian scientists to develop structures that are safer for the shipment of oil and gas, and in the future, hydrogen and CO2

By Heitor Shimizu, in Tokyo

Agência FAPESP – “The rapid economic growth of the BRICs [Brazil, Russia, India and China] has resulted in the world having to produce increasingly more energy. It is estimated that the demand for total primary energy in 2035 will be 50% higher than at present,” said Shuji Aihara, professor in the School of Engineering at the University of Tokyo.

Aihara was one of the speakers at the Japan-Brazil Symposium on Research Collaboration, organized by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) together with FAPESP March 15-16 in Tokyo.

“Mass transportation between countries has also become more important for maintaining the world’s economic activities. Due to factors such as these, one of the main challenges to engineering today lies in the increased production of oil and gas, and in transporting these energy sources safely,” he explained.

According to Aihara, a large variety of structures, such as pipelines, ships and structures on the high seas have been developed and built in recent years due to this demand. The research team led by the scientist studies technologies and ways to ensure the safety of these structures, for man as well as for the environment.

The goal is to reduce the chances of oil disasters like the Exxon Valdez, which capsized in 1989 off the coast of Alaska, spilling over 40 million liters of fuel which spread to an area of over 20,000 square kilometers. Or platform accidents like the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, which released over 700 million liters of oil into the sea. Occurrences like these cause enormous damage to the environment.

Aihara and his team study the resistance and durability of structures used for the exploration and transport of oil and gas currently, and for hydrogen in the future. “Pipeline pressure and length has increased steadily in order to meet the demand for power. In the ‘hydrogen society’ [what the scientist believes is the fuel of the future], the transport of gas will continue to be necessary,” he explained.

Another type of transport that Aihara also believes will be important in the future is that of carbon dioxide. “Mass CO2 transport systems will be needed to capture the carbon from anthropogenic sources and store it at locations with underground reservoirs. For these, long-distance pipelines will continue to be used, and new types will become necessary,” he said.

For these new pipelines that will transport hydrogen and CO2, the prevention of cracks is a crucial topic. “We’ve conducted large scale tests on high pressure pipelines like never before. We used videos to identify how fissures can spread at speeds upwards of 1,000 km/h,” he said.

The Japanese researchers have developed a computational model to simulate the behavior of these fissures in pipelines, and they have observed that the pipelines for transporting hydrogen appear to be more secure than those that transport oil and gas.

Collaboration with Brazil

Aihara’s Tokyo underscored the importance of international collaboration on research in his field. The scientist’s team conducts exchanges with researchers from several Brazilian institutions, such as the University of São Paulo (USP) and the Federal University of Pernambuco.

In order to increase scientific partnerships between Japan and Brazil, the University of Tokyo will hold two meetings, called Todai Forums (the name the university is known by in Japan) in November 2013. On November 7-8, they will be held in Santiago, Chile.

São Paulo’s turn will come November 11-12. The forum to be held in the São Paulo capital will also feature a workshop on fluid dynamics for marine structures, held in partnership with USP.