Today, I visit the largest ship I've ever been on.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Down in Galveston today, I
went to see a new kind of ship -- an FPSO, a
Floating Production, Storage and Offloading system.
This new vessel is actually rather old, and only
one trip is presently planned for it. It was built
in 1973 as the M.T. Swift, a 270,000-ton oil
tanker. That's over three times the carrying
capacity of the Queen Mary! It's almost 1100 feet
long -- 3-1/2 football fields -- with a width more
than 3/5 of a football field.
The Oceaneering company paid only ten million
dollars for the old tanker, and they're using seven
times that amount to turn it into a whole new kind
of machine. When they finish refitting, it'll sail
to a huge dry-dock in Portugal, pick up a coat of
paint, then continue to a patch of ocean off the
West Coast of central Africa. That patch of ocean
is called the Zafiro oil field and the refitted
tanker will wear its new name: the Zafiro
It'll be moored in place there, and connected to
eight oil wells on the ocean floor, 600 feet below.
It'll pump up oil. It'll clean water, gas, and
paraffin out of the oil, and store it. It'll
offload oil into other vessels. It'll do what
offshore platforms do and provide storage as well.
The purpose of this ship will no longer be to go
anywhere. Still, if the wells run dry, its 38,000
HP, four-story-high diesel engine can be fired up
once more to take it off to some new place.
So I walked this huge ship -- pipes, pumps,
preliminary clean-up gear, a 250-foot flare tower,
a whole processing plant -- new anchors and mooring
system. It could've been the set of a science
fiction movie. The view of Galveston Bay from the
14-story-high walkway above the bridge was glorious
-- tiny shrimp boats shrouded in gulls -- the
ship's bow, too far ahead to make out details.
The Zafiro Producer will be the second largest
producer ship ever built, and it'll have the
greatest pumping capacity. It can offload 40,000
barrels of oil an hour. It also represents a
wonderful form of recycling. Oceaneering paid
little more than this old ship would've commanded
as scrap metal.
This is not radical invention. Rather, it's a bold
step in the ongoing process of technological
evolution. The means of offshore oil removal change
daily as creative people struggle to find the
cheapest, safest, and cleanest ways to do the job.
The scale of the work is enormous. This is no task
for the timid.
You and I seldom have the chance to see such work
close up. That privilege is usually reserved for
pipefitters, welders, and steelworkers. It is a
terribly sobering thing to measure our meager
selves against such magnitude.
And it leaves me to ponder the enormous unseen
forces I call into play every time I claim what
seems like a birthright -- the ability to fill my
car's gas tank, whenever I please.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds