Qatar becoming a vital centre for the energy industry


A key part of Qatar’s long-term development plan, Qatar National Vision 2030 (QNV 2030), is the transformation of the state from a resource-based economy to one that is knowledge-based. Aimed at unhooking the country from hydrocarbons dependency and diversifying its economy, this bold strategy has entailed major investment in human, social, environmental and economic development, with a big role in each for research and development (R&D).

At the same time, the country’s major oil and gas resources – and the consequent presence of several international oil companies (IOCs) – has also led to on-the-ground investment from the IOCs in R&D. These two strands being in the same place at the same time has brought a synergy between national and international goals, with a cluster of scientific centres opening in Qatar that boost the country’s R&D profile, while also providing solutions to the ongoing challenges of oil and gas production.

STRATEGY: One of the leading institutions in Qatar’s knowledge economy drive is Qatar Foundation (QF), which added an R&D pillar to its overall strategy in 2011. QF then came up with the Qatar National Research Strategy, which prioritised energy, water and cyber security. The latter became the reserve of the Qatar Computing Research Institute, while the other two came under the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI). Currently, QEERI is focusing on three main areas of R&D: solar energy, and particularly photovoltaic research; energy storage, particularly off-grid battery systems; and the final one, smart grids, integrating the electricity networks of the state to boost reliability and security. QEERI is open to new project areas, however, and it has also been looking at the effects of climate change on Qatar and the wider Gulf region.

Another leading body established by QF in R&D is the Qatar National Research Fund, which supports a variety of programmes from the undergraduate to post-doctoral level across a range of disciplines. This has been invaluable for the international universities and schools that have set up branches in Qatar in recent years, including Texas A&M, which has a petroleum engineering BSc programme at its Education City campus. Meanwhile, the nearby Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) has become home to a wide variety of R&D facilities run by the IOCs.

The Total Research Centre Qatar (TRC-Q) is the only research centre that Total runs outside of France and that is involved in both exploration and production research, and refining and chemicals research. The centre was placed in Doha because of Total’s strong regional presence, with the shared characteristics of the Gulf’s carbonate limestone reservoirs making research conducted in Qatar more applicable across the region. QF’s creation of the QSTP was also a major factor, as the park offers state-of-the-art facilities in a free zone, granting companies major tax and other incentives.

STIMULATING IDEAS: TRC-Q is now focusing on the analysis of chemical composition in fluids retrieved from Total’s wells in its geochemical lab, with the results being supplied to Total’s partners, such as Qatar Petroleum, Qatargas and Dolphin. The centre is also looking at acid stimulation, a technique used to boost output in oil and gas reservoirs. While aimed at any declining well, this research has particular importance for the Al Khalij Field, which produces a high-water, low-oil content. With declining output, traditional acid stimulation techniques can be used to boost production but stimulate both water and oil at the same time. TRC-Q is thus currently engaged in researching different types of polymers that can be used to block the water, while letting the oil through.

A third lab at the TRC-Q is looking at using captured CO produced through oil and gas activities and processing it to strip out the carbon and use this to produce plastics. This innovative research – approved at the end of 2014 – is being conducted in conjunction with Texas A&M. Also located at QSTP, Maersk Oil Research and Technology Centre (MO-RTC) opened in 2011. It currently has four teams: one looking at enhanced oil recovery (EOR); a second at environmental impact; a third in charge of digital studies (the centre has some of the most advanced digital core scanning equipment in the region); and the fourth concentrating on applied research. MO-RTC also has partnerships with several Qatar-based universities, such as Texas A&M, and sponsors a chair in environmental engineering at Qatar University.

NEW TRICKS: In EOR, the MO-RTC is looking at highly advanced techniques, using soaps and polymers to boost recovery, both in scrubbing out the oil in rock that is often left behind by conventional water or gas injection, and in separating out oil from the liquids that are extracted after these techniques. The centre is also studying the environmental impact of these processes, feeding this into both its own future operations and QNV 2030’s vision of a more environmentally sustainable Qatar. In addition, the centre helped Maersk retain its place in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest piece of horizontal drilling (12 km), a title which Maersk held for six years from 2008, for work in the North Field.

Also at the QSTP is the ExxonMobil Research Qatar (EMRQ) centre, which launched its first project in 2006. This focused on environmental management, looking at how Qatar’s coastline was being impacted by industrial and commercial development, and the desalination plants springing up as the country’s economy and population expanded.

The Qatar Centre for Coastal Research was established by EMRQ, enabling oil and gas geologists to study the on-surface make-up of the carbonate rocks in Qatar and draw conclusions about how they function under the sea, where these often oil- and gas-bearing formations continue.

SAFETY: EMRQ also has a major focus on liquefied natural gas (LNG) safety issues. A 3D visualisation cube enables highly realistic training of LNG workers in carefully constructed scenarios, placing them effectively onboard an LNG carrier or in a degasification control room. EMRQ has a programme researching remote gas detection, with this having vital safety applications, as well as reducing emissions. The centre also supports Qatar University Gas Processing Centre and its Environmental Studies Centre, while also working with Texas A&M on a variety of projects.

QSTP is also home to the ConocoPhillips Global Water Sustainability Centre (GWSC), which focuses mainly on water-related issues, particularly desalination technologies. Some of these areas also have oil and gas implications, with the company’s labs looking at uses of water in EOR, particularly in chemically enhanced recovery techniques.

Issues such as corrosion – a bugbear of the offshore industry – are also investigated. The GWSC is also working with Qatargas to look at treatments for recycling water produced by LNG operations. Indeed, much of the research that has applications in the water utility field – such as desalination – is the result of work first done in the oil and gas arena.

WORKING TOGETHER: The Qatar Petroleum Research & Technology Centre (QPRTC) at the QSTP focuses on four operational research areas – operations, subsurface, downstream and environment. The centre has undertaken a number of collaborative projects with other centres, too, such as an acid stimulation research programme with the TRC-Q, running since 2012, that scored a major success in late 2014 with the installation of a QP dual-core rig. The QPRTC is also working with UOP LLC, a Honeywell company, on optimising CO and sulphur component removal from natural gas.

The QSTP holds the Qatar branch office of TNO, the Dutch independent technology development and consultancy organisation. This is involved in some projects connected with optimisation methods for de-bottlenecking and other processes, as well as gas treatment, such as CO removal. The centre also has an interest in small-scale LNG projects.

Finally, the QSTP has also provided a home for the Qatar Shell Research and Technology Centre (QSRTC). Funded jointly by Shell, QP and the QSTP, the centre is looking at CO storage technologies, as well as at the properties of the carbonate reservoirs from which Qatar’s oil and gas comes. Working with Norway’s Petroleum Geo-Services, the centre has been using battery-less fibre optic and laser technologies to produce a highly accurate seismic survey. In collaboration with QP and the UK’s Imperial College, the QSRTC has also been researching the impact of CO injec- tions on subsurface regions. In addition, the centre is researching the next generation of cobalt synthesis catalysts for use in its gas-to-liquids processes.

Thus the global leaders in oil and gas technology now operating in Qatar are able to conduct both theoretical and applied research in-situ. This gives the country a big advantage over many other R&D centres, with the encouragement provided by the authorities to locate in the QSTP also a major benefit.