LONDON A strange-looking vessel inspired by the exotic sucker fish is due to leave Norway for Brazil's giant offshore oilfields this week on a mission to revolutionize deep sea oil loading methods.
At 47 meters tall, 28 meters long and with an 11 meter keel, HiLoad DP unit No. 1 looks top-heavy and out of place in the water, more like a partly submerged container-port crane than a ship of any type - or a fish for that matter.
But attached to its mother ship, the oil tanker Navion Anglia, the vessel is preparing to head anyway from the Norwegian port of Kirstiansund in southern Norway to the ocean off Rio de Janeiro on a debut 10-year commercial trial contract for Brazilian state oil company Petrobras.
Its deployment in the Campos and Espirito Santo pre-salt basins reflects the burgeoning scale and increasing remoteness of offshore projects that supply about one third of the world's crude oil, and the challenges of developing such resources economically.
The Norwegian-built craft is designed to load oil from deep sea Floating Production, Storage and Offloading (FPSO) vessels directly onto a standard tanker with no extra equipment.
It offers a cost-saving alternative to specialist shuttle tankers with their own dynamic positioning (DP) systems, and to the use of moored loading buoys with their associated tug boats.
There are already about 150 FPSOs - often simply converted tankers but also increasingly sophisticated new-built vessels - working offshore, as oil companies go so deep in the search for oil where traditional platforms and pipelines are impractical.
Petrobras and the Brazilian offshore fields it controls are the apex of that boom.
Data from industry consultants IHS says 21 of the 48 FPSOs currently under construction are being built for Petrobras. Energy business advisers Douglas-Westwood has forecast that between 2013 and 2017, $91 billion will be spent on FPSOs - double the amount over the past five years.
The sheer scale of Brazil's offshore projects, along with relatively calm weather compared with the North Sea and other deep sea locations, makes them an ideal commercial testing ground for the new technology, but there are other factors at play.
"One of the drivers is that Brazil will have to export a lot of its oil - so direct loading onto normal tankers instead of reloading from shuttle tankers will create considerable savings," said Yngve Kloster, project manager for the deployment of HiLoad DP unit No. 1 to the Petrobras project.
"We also see it as an alternative in (offshore) Africa where they use offloading buoys you can approach with a normal tanker, but where you will need a tug to assist as well."
Kloster said there could be environmental benefits too from lower fuel consumption and reduced leakage of polluting vapors during loading.
MUTANT DORSAL FIN
Kloster works for Teekay Corp, an oil shipping, production and transport specialist company which last year bought the HiLoad DP unit No. 1 along with a half share in the developer, Norway-based Remora AS.
It paid $55 million for the HiLoad DP No. 1 - a prototype built in 2010 - and paid $4.4 million for its 49.9 percent stake in the business.
Remora is the Latin name for the sucker fish, a species whose crowning glory is a dorsal fin that has mutated into a sucker behind its head.
The fish empties water from chambers in the sucker to create a vacuum and grab a ride under something larger - usually a shark - for a feed on leftovers and parasites.
The HiLoad DP (Dynamic Positioning) unit works in much the same way - although unlike the fish, it is the feeder rather than the fed, and it takes control of its larger host.
A sucker slab grabs the tanker below the water line, and more suckers on the section of the craft above the surface secure a hold higher up on the tanker's hull.
Once attached, three powerful DP thruster engines that can rotate 360 degrees keep the host tanker steady and a safe distance from the FPSO. A hose attached to the HiLoad from the FPSO fills the tanker with crude.
HiLoad DP No. 1 and its crew of three can travel at four knots and up to three nautical miles from its mother ship or an FPSO to which it can attach itself when not in use.
It can handle any tanker up to "Suezmax" size (160,000 deadweight metric tons), grabbing it and loading it with oil in a process that takes 24-30 hours - comparable with a shuttle tanker loading time, Kloster says.
The prototype is designed to work with "spread moored" FPSOs, which are fixed in place, but during the Petrobras contract it will also be tested with a "turret moored" FPSO.
Turret FPSOs are moored from a section around which the rest of the vessel rotates in the wind and the current - extra movement that requires more powerful dynamic positioning systems for the tanker to match.
Kloster said the company will design, and hopefully build, future versions that are more powerful and can more easily cope with turret moored FPSOs and bigger tankers.
Teekay said in May it hoped to start operations in early 2014. It also has a contract to provide shuttle tankers from this year for BG Group, the British company and Petrobras' partner offshore Brazil.
BG Group declined to comment for this story. Petrobras had no immediate comment.
(Reporting by Andrew Callus; editing by David Evans)