Under The Sea: Future Factories And A New Volcano

7:35 minutes

Offshore drilling of oil and natural gas has always had its technical challenges. For example, where do you put the pumps and processing plants when you’re out in the middle of the ocean? Right now, that equipment sits on huge floating platforms, until companies start building underwater factories… which could make drilling technology more productive, energy efficient, and maybe even safer. Amy Nordrum, news editor at IEEE Spectrum, joins Ira to discuss what is takes to power a subsea factory of the future. Plus, off the coast of Madagascar, an unusual amount of seismic activity has alerted scientists to the sudden appearance of a new volcano, and while testing a new generation of x-ray lasers, a team at SLAC accidentally produced the loudest sound ever recorded.

Further Reading:

Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, the current Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the second largest outbreak. We’ll hear from a first responder on the ground there. But first, offshore drilling of oil and natural gas has always had its technical challenges, the first one being, of course, where do you put the pumps and the processing plants when you’re out in the middle of the ocean? 

Well, right now that equipment sits on huge floating platforms. And until companies start building underwater factories, which could make drilling technology more productive, energy efficient, maybe even safer? Here to share that story with us as well as other short subjects in science this week is Amy Nordrum, news editor for the IEEE Spectrum. Good to see you again, Amy. 

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: So let’s talk about– so companies are looking to put their equipment underwater instad of on top of it. 

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. The oil and gas industry has for years been talking about moving more of its oil and gas drilling and processing equipment down to the sea floor instead of having it on these big expensive platforms where they have to helicopter workers out to maintain and run it. And so they’ve been in the process of working on this step by step. 

And they have moved some equipment down from platforms to the sea floor in the past. But for every piece of equipment you put down there, you have to string a power line down to it, because it’s really hard to generate power that far underwater. So the next step really is to put an actual power distribution station down on the sea floor that would work underwater, be there for 30 or more years, and be able to distribute power from one power line to other pieces of equipment on the sea floor. 

So there’s two companies, ABB and Siemens, that are getting pretty close to this goal. So they’ve got versions and prototypes of this kind of station that can now operate in shallow water. And then within the next couple of months to a year they’re hoping to put this in a real world site that’s actively drilling oil and gas and that would serve as a pilot or a test project of this idea. 

IRA FLATOW: If there are not people there at the underwater site, are there people controlling it, either– or is it artificial intelligence that’s doing it? 

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. One idea is that this would actually be safer, because instead of having employees out there on an oil platform, you wouldn’t actually need any workers. This would be remote controlled. So there’d still be an operator somewhere at a facility, perhaps on shore nearby or perhaps on a boat. And they would have access and be able to communicate with that underwater equipment. And there would be nobody actually on-site anymore. 

IRA FLATOW: You know, when we think about offshore drilling rigs, and we think– I think about saltwater. I’m a sailor. I know what saltwater can do to things. I mean, it seems like things can go wrong with underwater. Will it be harder then to get down there and fix it unless it was a raised platform? 

AMY NORDRUM: Oh yeah. That’s the big catch. I mean, in theory, this could save money, because you don’t need the labor to maintain this equipment. And perhaps there’d be other positives. You’d be able to not use so much energy on transporting stuff up to the platform, so maybe it’d be more power efficient. But it’s a lot harder to get this stuff to work underwater than it is above ground. 

In fact, the research labs involved in creating this equipment had to certify every individual component and make sure that it would work underwater in the way that they intended and then basically build this thing from scratch and test the whole thing, because all this stuff had been shown to work above water before and air but never underwater in this particular way. 

IRA FLATOW: Just like they do in spaceships, right? You got to certify all those little parts. 

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly. Yeah. Make sure it works. 

IRA FLATOW: OK. Let’s move on to things that are different stories. Another story coming to us from the sea this week. Scientists have discovered a new underwater volcano. 


IRA FLATOW: That’s always exciting. 

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. It is exciting. And this actually solves a mystery that they’ve been looking into for almost a year now where there was this sudden spate of tectonic and seismic activity off the coast of Madagascar in between Madagascar and Africa. Really that started about this time last year. 

All of a sudden, residents on nearby islands there were experiencing earthquakes almost on a daily basis after having basically no seismic activity for centuries. And so they were wondering what was up with this. And one island in particular was actually slowly shifting to the east and seemed to be sinking. And they didn’t really know what was behind this. 

And so then scientists in the last couple of months have deployed a bunch of seismometers on the ocean floor there to pick a better look at the seismic activity going on. They were able to pinpoint this one particular area that was showing a lot of action. And then they sent out a ship and started surveying it with acoustic scans that bounce sound waves off the bottom of the ocean and back up to the ship. 

And after four or five days of moving around in a grid doing these acoustic scans, the team found what they now know is a brand new underwater volcano that was actually kind of mideruption and putting out this plume of material as they observed it. So they just made an announcement this earlier this month that they had found this. And they have a peer review paper in the works for it. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. So it’s something new. They found this. They felt the shaking and they went looking for the source. 

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly. Yeah. That’s kind of the first time that they’ve really pulled off this detective work with a big unknown seismic event and then tracing it back to a new underwater volcano in this way. 

IRA FLATOW: It’s cool. Next up, scientists are solving the problem how to send vaccines to other countries safely. Always been a problem about heat and things like that, right? 

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. A lot of vaccine transport, it’s a big problem. I mean making vaccines is hard enough, but then you’ve got to get them to the places that need them. And in order to do this, many vaccines need to be properly cooled and refrigerated along the way. 

This is always tricky, especially in places where you don’t have access to refrigeration and electricity. And so scientists and researchers have been working for a while and trying to make more temperature stable vaccines. 

So a group from McMaster University in Ontario recently announced a new technique that they came up with. It involves mixing two sugars together and then mixing the ingredients of a vaccine in with those sugars, drying it into a flat thin film, and then transporting that film, which is very temperature stable and helps the vaccine survive high and cold temperatures over a long journey. Then once you get to your destination, you’re able to dissolve the sugars away and extract the vaccine. 

IRA FLATOW: Just add water. 


IRA FLATOW: And finally, one of their experiments– researchers at SLAC, the Stanford Linear Accelerator, accidentally created the loudest sound ever recorded. 

AMY NORDRUM: Yes. I wish we could play it. But it would hurt very much to– 

IRA FLATOW: Cost too mcuh. 

AMY NORDRUM: Yes. It would not be something they actually want to hear. Yeah. So this was actually, yeah, at the SLAC Laboratory at Stanford. They’re using a powerful X-ray laser. And they’re on the cusp of upgrading a lot of these X-ray lasers that are in place around the world to even more powerful X-ray lasers. 

But they have a question in mind, which is like what would these more powerful lasers actually do to the samples that we’re studying. Many times these samples are suspended in a jet of liquid. It’s like an easy way to present a sample to these lasers to be studied. 

And so they decided to do a simulation with their existing laser of what these more powerful lasers might do to a sample suspended in a jet of liquid. So they beamed it at a jet of liquid, a bunch of tiny jets actually. And then they observed what happened. 

And they saw a shockwave take place in the middle of one of these jets. They actually have a movie of it that you can watch. And the shockwave created a bunch more shock waves. And they were able to measure the power of this shockwave and equated it to about 270 decibels, which is louder than like a rocket engine taking off. 


AMY NORDRUM: So extremely, extremely powerful sound, so powerful that if it had been much greater, it would have actually boiled the water itself. So next they’ll have to figure out is this going to damage samples in future X-ray laser experiments. 

IRA FLATOW: Or figure out if they want to make tea or not. Thank you. 


IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Amy. Amy Nordrum, news editor for the IEEE Spectrum.

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