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SwRI technicians lowering a specialized cover over a chamber in the ocean simulation lab

Episode 6: Simulating an Ocean

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In this Episode

Amy McCleney and Lisa Peña discuss the intersection of art and science through a process called image analysis.

SwRI’s Joe Crouch and Lisa Peña discuss how his team creates sea-like conditions in the Ocean Simulation Lab.

How do you lessen the chance of a deep sea disaster? Put your equipment through rigorous testing before it ever hits the water. Testing underwater equipment in the ocean is costly, but necessary for safety. The SwRI Ocean Simulation Lab is a reliable alternative and offers a sea of options. Our guest in this episode is Southwest Research Institute engineer Joe Crouch. He tells us how his team brings the ocean to life, recreating the temperatures and pressures of a deep sea dive, in an 18,000-square-foot lab. Researchers are submerging all types of equipment to measure strength and durability and to help avoid deep ocean catastrophes.

Plus, how is the deep ocean team creating rescue solutions for stranded submarine crews? And what role did SwRI play in the discovery of the Titanic wreckage? Listen now as we ride the waves of simulating an ocean.


Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for clarity.

Lisa Peña (LP): We're taking a deep dive into an ocean simulation lab, where engineers are bringing much-needed answers to the surface. Our guest today turns up the pressure and plunges underwater equipment into deep sea conditions. How is his work improving entire industries, helping the U.S. Navy, and making the world safer? That's next on this episode of Technology Today.


We live with technology, science, engineering, and the results of innovative research every day. Now let's understand it better. You're listening to the new Technology Today podcast presented by Southwest Research Institute. Hello, and welcome to Technology Today. I'm your host Lisa Pena.

Imagine a catastrophic equipment failure in the depths of the ocean. Maybe a pipeline bursts or a diving suit or submarine fails. What are the implications for sea life, the ocean, the oil and gas industry, even human life? Our guest today is Joe Crouch, a Southwest Research Institute engineer and marine and offshore systems program director. He takes underwater equipment to the limit with the goal of avoiding a deep sea catastrophe. Thanks for joining us, Joe.

Joe Crouch (JC): Thanks for having me, Lisa.

LP: So, Joe, let's expand on the scenarios I just explained. What could happen during a deep sea equipment failure?

JC: Well, Lisa, we don't have to imagine what could happen. It wasn't too long ago when we had an accident in the deep ocean, the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Macondo Well, where, for days, it was leaking lots of oil into the ocean and caused a big environmental disaster and cost billions of dollars. Those are the types of things that we're trying to prevent in the Ocean Simulation Lab.

LP: So just to refresh our memories here, that Deepwater Horizon spill happened in April 2010, and it was an oil drilling rig that was operating in the Gulf. It exploded and sank, and 11 people died. So really, when this equipment fails, it's catastrophic on–it could be catastrophic on many levels.

JC: Absolutely.

LP: So, Joe, you run our Southwest Research Institute Ocean Simulation Lab, or OSL, which ultimately works to prevent these types of worst-case scenarios or disasters. So, how does it work? What happens in this unique lab?

JC: So, clients send us their equipment that they want to test in the ocean. The cost of testing it in the ocean can be exorbitant, taking it out on a boat and putting it in and having all the people out there. So what we've established are some pressure vessels that we fill with water and we press up to simulate the environment of the ocean. And then we can run the equipment through its functional testing or up to failure.

LP: OK, so let's go through some lab stats here. Nearly 18,000 square feet of space. Three separate buildings. The buildings house deep ocean pressure simulation test chambers that range from 2 to 90 inches in diameter. And your chambers range in depth from more than one foot to more than 20 feet deep. That's a huge range there. The chambers are designed for different water depths, exerting pressures from 2,500 to 60,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. So put that into perspective for us. How much pressure is that on a piece of equipment?

JC: Well, the 60,000 is an awful lot. That's 30 tons per square inch. So that's, you know, several elephants standing on a postage stamp. Now, the deep ocean, the deepest part of the ocean, is only about 17,000 PSI, so we're actually testing it pressures much deeper than the deepest part of the ocean. And for those cases, oftentimes, what we're simulating is the geologic pressures, wellbore pressures, that the earth exhibits on equipment.

LP: So even though the pressure is lower in the deep ocean, it's still possible that this equipment could face that sort of challenge on the upper levels?

JC: Absolutely, yeah.

LP: OK, so how are the chambers constructed and how do they mirror the conditions in the ocean?

JC: Well, the chamber is simply a piece of pipe, if you will, that's very, very thick wall made out of steel. And you fill it up with water, and you just keep pumping more water in there. The water is incompressible, relatively speaking, so the pressure just keeps building and building and building and building until we reach to the conditions that we want. We can chill it down to get to the refrigerated temperatures, like 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Or we can heat it up to simulate other conditions, where we can take it all the way up to 650 degrees Fahrenheit.

LP: So there's a range of pressure, a range of temperatures. And this is all because you want to know that this equipment can function in the worst possible conditions?

JC: Exactly.

LP: So, what type of equipment are you evaluating in the OSL?

JC: Anything that goes in the water, for the most part, that will fit in our pressure vessels. We test everything from small little penetrators. Those are things that carry fiber optic or copper wires through the bulkhead of a submerged object. We test camera housings, electronics housings, one atmosphere dive suits for human occupancy, submarine bodies that fit things as simple as a piece of pipe or tubing that's going to be an external pressure kind of situation, up to very large subsea valves that get installed in the deep ocean.

LP: And for all of this equipment, the process is pretty much the same? You're taking this equipment and lowering it into these chambers to see how it reacts?

JC: That's pretty much it. Now, depending on what the piece of equipment is, we can be running very high voltages down to it, hydraulic communication lines or electrical communication lines, fiber optic communication lines. All those things penetrate through the lid or the body of the pressure vessel and then cycle the piece of equipment that's under test. So the basic principle of simulating the ocean pressure is common. It's the same for all pieces of equipment. But it's what we're actually doing with those pieces of equipment while they're down there that makes it a little bit different each time.

LP: So what happens when the equipment fails in your lab? Do you take it that far, to where you get a break?

JC: We do. Many times, they want to test it to its ultimate limit, and so we'll take it to failure. When that happens, we very rarely have what would be referred to as an implosion, because we do things to minimize that energy that's released during the implosion event. So we don't have explosions as you were describing it. But the amount of energy that gets released is controlled in the way that we actually test it.

Oftentimes, all we're doing is testing for functionality, making sure that the piece of equipment won't leak, will operate as designed under those pressures or temperatures.

LP: So take us to an offshore drilling site. What's going on there? What are they dropping into the ocean on a daily basis, and how do we fit into that puzzle?

JC: Well, most of what the oil industry is dropping down are valves, control pods, other types of operational equipment, laying down pipes, running pipes from the drill platform down to the subsea for either drilling or production. And we test a lot of that equipment, as long as it will fit in one of our pressure vessels. So anything that's smaller than 90 inches in diameter and less than about 22 foot long.

LP: So, we chatted a little bit about this yesterday, but you get some questions as to how are you able to simulate the ocean in a landlocked city right here at Southwest Research Institute. You get that question a lot, huh?

JC: Well, we get why do we do it here, in the middle of the south Texas desert. And the answer is because we're good at it. We've been doing this for over five decades in South Texas. The simulation of the deep ocean pressures, again, it's fairly easy to do that, as long as you have a pressure vessel capable of the pressures that you're trying to generate. And we've expanded that over the last five decades. As little as 10 years ago, we only had about a dozen pressure vessels. Now we're up to close to two dozen, and we have some additional ones that we can bring on line.

LP: So, who are your clients? Who needs your services the most?

JC: Anyone that wants to put something in the ocean comes to us. We do everything from small fishing lures. People that want to test a new type of fishing lure, we've tested that, up to small submersibles for various navies. So we test globally for all sorts of different clients, international and domestic. And we test just virtually anything that you want to make sure will survive in the water, we have tested it.

LP: So you do work for the U.S. Navy. You do some projects for them. Can you tell us about your work with the U.S. Navy?

JC: Well, with U.S. Navy, we've done quite a bit of various things, everything from designing and fabricating the submarine rescue vehicle for the U.S. Navy. Also, the U.S. Navy owns the Alvin submersible, and we designed and built the new titanium hull to take that to 6,500 meters, which is roughly about 98% of the ocean, everything but the hadal zones. The hadal are all the trenches like the Marianas Trench, Puerto Rican Trench, etc.

The strain gauging methodology that we've developed over the last five decades, strain gauges measured the amount of defamation in an object. As you put that under pressure, that's an important aspect that you want to determine. And the strain gauging methodology for deep ocean, it's not trivial. You've got to be very, very specific on how you're applying those gauges, how you waterproof them, and how you actually use them under the test so that you get good data.

That's something that the Navy recognized, and they specify us to help them in various test of equipment, whether it's off shore or out the ocean or in one of our labs. And then, our finite element analysis, our analytical skills that we've developed for deep ocean equipment, designing stuff and fabricating stuff so that it is good for the deep ocean conditions, the U.S. Navy recognizes our skills there. And so we do all of those things, including the tests for them.

LP: Can you talk about your work with submarine rescue equipment?

JC: Sure. The submarine rescue, following the Russian Kursk, which was a submarine that sunk in about 700 feet of water, there was survivors in the submarine. But unfortunately, the Russians were unable to get to them because of a number of reasons, but one, the submarine was listed over at about 45 degrees. The U.S. Navy recognized that that's a real scenario that we didn't have any real assets to be able to effectively rescue stranded submariners in that scenario.

So back in the late '90s, early 2000s, we were contracted to design and fabricate a vehicle with a skirt that was able to articulate to that 45-degree maximum so that you could attach it to the stranded submarine and rescue people under pressure. The interesting thing about being in a stranded submarine is that just by breathing, you're building up pressure. But oftentimes, you've had a rupture in your hull, and as the waters in-rushed, it's compressed the air in there. So a lot of the rescued submariners may have a decompression commitment.

So the bends. You've heard of divers getting the bends. That's what happens. So this vehicle we designed and built is capable of rescuing them under pressure, bringing them back to the surface, transferring them under pressure to a decompression chamber on the deck of the ship, and then getting them to the hospital as soon as you can.

LP: So this is really life-saving research and development at this point.

JC: Absolutely. Absolutely. And we're currently doing the same thing for the Commonwealth of Australia. So we've got a new program that we're actually getting underway right now.

LP: Yeah, so this has garnered international attention now. You have become sort of the go-to team for this type of work. When you were contacted to work with the Australian government, what is it that they wanted you to do for them?

JC: Well, it's basically the same thing. It builds on our expertise in this field, taking the minimalist approach in the design to get them something that will work that is not overly expensive, overly heavy. Small enough to fit on a 747 so that they can fly it to various areas where there may be a stranded submarine.

LP: So when there is a stranded submarine, time is of the essence, obviously. And does this happen often? Or is this...

JC: Well, fortunately, it doesn't happen often, but it's happened often enough. And unfortunately, time is of the essence. If you're stranded in shallow water, you really only have enough oxygen for a relatively short period of time. So we'd like to be able to get to them and rescue them within about 72 hours.

LP: OK, so you did mention the Alvin submersible, kind of to change topics here. What is the Alvin submersible?

JC: The Alvin submersible is operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. It's owned by the U.S. Navy, and it is a three-person research sub that was built back in the '60s. The Alvin comes from one of the Woods Hole scientists named Allyn Vine. And so he was one of the instrumental personnel that really pushed to get this thing built, and so it was named after him, and Allyn Vine became "Alvin."

The Alvin has been around for a number of years. It was one of the two submersibles that found a hydrogen bomb that had been dropped in the Mediterranean inadvertently due to an air collision. It found the, well, it didn't actually find, but the first to allow people to lay eyes on the mid-Atlantic Ridge. And then, also, Bob Ballard was in it when he found the Titanic.

LP: And that's its claim to fame.

JC: That's its primary claim to fame, which is an interesting story, if I may.

LP: Yeah, please.

JC: The original plan that Bob Ballard was operating under was a classified program, and it's been recently unclassified. So the truth of the matter is Bob was not looking for the Alvin. He was looking for two other submarines using...

LP: Or the Titanic.

JC: Excuse me, the Titanic. He was in the Alvin looking for the Titanic. So Bob was not actually looking for the Titanic. He was looking for two submarines that had imploded. And when something implodes, as it sinks, it tends to leave a long debris trail. So he was using side scan sonar to look for this long debris trail to try to find these submarines. One was Russian. One was American.

And that was the covert project he was working on, not looking for the Titanic. Titanic was a cover story. Unfortunately for the Navy, he found the Titanic. But it was good for us, because we now know where the Titanic is, and we've been able to visit it numerous times.

LP: Yeah, and obviously, a huge deal to be able to find that treasure in the ocean. So what is our tie to the Alvin submersible?

JC: Well, we did some of the original testing on the hull back in the '60s, and then the new hull, we designed and built. It was a titanium hull to take it from 4,500 meter maximum water depth to 6,500 meter maximum water depth. Allows it cover about 98% of the ocean. And again, they wanted to use a lot of their old assets. So we were constrained by how large it could be, how heavy it could be, but it needed to go 50% deeper. So a lot of challenges, and we were successful in building that. And now we've got a vehicle that's capable of diving to 6,500 meters.

LP: So it really is, like, a search vessel?

JC: A research vessel, right. It's to take humans down to the bottom of the ocean and actually lay eyes on what's going on. You can do some of that with an ROV, a remotely operated vehicle, but handling those long depths of cable can be problem. You can get spooling issues, and cables get wrapped around things. Having an actual vehicle with a person down there looking around through the viewports, seeing what they want to touch, reacting at real time, it's the same argument we have in deep space.

Having a person out there being able to physically make decisions on the spot without looking at a camera, wading through the time delays and all those kinds of things, just always better to have people on site.

LP: So as someone new to this terminology, what's the difference between submersible and submarine?

JC: There is no difference other than, typically, a submarine is something that you put people in. And so it has life support issues. A submersible can be anything that goes underwater.

LP: OK. Thanks for clearing that up.

JC: Sure.

LP: So you are working with the Australian submarine rescue system team, as we mentioned. Are you working on other submersible projects or submarines at this time?

JC: Currently, we don't have anything else that we're doing specific to that. With the Commonwealth of Australia, there's actually two vehicles that we're working on. There is a deep water submarine rescue vehicle, which is very similar to what we did with the Navy. But then we're also working on a shallow water rescue platform, which is more like a diving bell with an articulating transfer skirt on there. So we're heavily engaged in that, as well.

LP: So you are, day in, day out, looking at ocean conditions and trying to recreate them, and you are successfully recreating them. But does your work actually take you out to the ocean?

JC: Not as often as we would like. We do get, on occasion, opportunities to go offshore. One of the recent efforts we had, the U.S. Navy wanted us to do some strain gauging on a platform that was mounted to a barge. It's called a LARS, or a Launch and Recovery System. And they wanted us to put some field strain gauges on. And then the team actually rode out on the barge out into the middle of the Pacific, well, not the middle of the Pacific, but far enough out near Catalina Island, and operated the system with the U.S. Navy and civilian contractors.

LP: I suppose it's nice to get out once in a while and just kind of get a feel for what the actual ocean is like and bring that back into your lab, I would assume.

JC: Absolutely.

LP: All right. So, let's see. I wanted to find out a little bit more about you, why you do what you do. What is the most fulfilling part of your job?

JC: You know, the most fulfilling part is really the knowledge that we're doing things that both protect the environment and also potentially save human lives. I sit on a rules committee called PVHO. It's the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for Pressure Vessels for Human Occupancy, and that's where PVHO comes from. And we create the rules for medical hyperbaric chambers, saturation diving systems, submersibles.

And when you're looking at that, you're thinking about the fact that people are climbing into these structures, and their life purely depends on the rules that you have put in place, the testing requirements that you've established. And so, you know, when you go to bed at night and you think about the fact that some of the things that you're doing may have saved somebody's life, at least in the recent past or in the recent future, that's a very, very fulfilling day's work.

LP: It's a huge responsibility.

JC: Yeah.

LP: So when your equipment that you've tested is being used offshore, they're looking for a certain level of assurance that it's going to succeed out there. So how do you sign off on a piece of equipment that this has been tested and it's good to use now?

JC: Yeah, we don't typically sign off on anything. It's not our role. Oftentimes, you will have a certifying body like Lloyd's Register, the American Bureau of Shipping, DNVGL. Those are the groups that will actually ensure, so to speak, that things are done. What we do is provide the service to do the testing that is either prescribed by these certifying bodies or by the customer. And we replicate the conditions that they need to, and we provide the data at the end that says, yea, verily, everything passed.

LP: So it goes through a series of checks...

JC: Exactly.

LP: ...prior to being used. So at the beginning, we spoke about the Deepwater Horizon spill, the loss of life. That was back in April 2010. Have things gotten more strict since then? Is there a higher threshold to meet?

JC: There's not so much a higher threshold as there is an increased amount of testing. And what I mean is there were things that were looked at as not really necessary to test or analyze in as much detail as we need to do nowadays. So there has been an increase in the amount of testing that we've been doing since that time.

LP: And is that regulation now, or is that more of your clients requesting?

JC: A little bit of both, but much of it is regulation. BSEE [Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement], which is the federal agency that has that regulatory responsibility for the Gulf of Mexico, they have implemented more stringent requirements on offshore equipment.

LP: OK, so anyone in the industry is going to be able to learn more about what you guys do here at Southwest Research Institute, because next month, you will be at the Offshore Technology Conference at Energy Park in Houston. That's May 6 through May 9, 2019, Booth Number 2201. And there will be a number of presentations showcasing your team's capabilities. This is a huge offshore conference. You were explaining it's pretty much close to about 100,000 people.

JC: It's one of the largest conferences, I believe, anywhere. It's around 100,000 or more people each year come to find out, and as I was explaining before, the offshore platform is really a city out at sea. So everything from janitorial services, transportation services, cafeteria services, medical services, as well as all of the equipment for drilling and completing a well. So there's a whole lot of people and a whole lot of exhibitors there.

We will have a number of presentations for the work that we do, but we also, at Southwest Research, do a whole lot of work for the oil and gas industry, both upstream and downstream. So we've got a number of people from other departments, other divisions, that will actually be doing presentations there, as well.

LP: All right. That sounds exciting. May 6 through May 9 in Houston. And we'll put a link on our website for more information.

JC: Yeah, come out and see us.

LP: Well, thank you for joining us today, Joe, and for this deep dive into ocean testing and why it's so important for efficiency and, really, for safety overall.

JC: My pleasure. Thanks so much, Lisa.

LP: And that wraps up this episode of Technology Today.

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The Ocean Simulation Lab at SwRI provides government and commercial clients with quality facilities and experienced staff to conduct testing and performance evaluation services.