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No. 1130:
The Zafiro Producer

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 Producer.

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 work.

(Theme music)

I toured the Zafiro Producer on Friday, May 31, 1996. The tour was conducted by Bruce Crager, Vice President and General Manager of Oceaneering Production Systems and other representatives of the company. The work is being done for Mobil Oil, and their representatives also participated in the tour. The work will be completed in record time owing to an open-ended contract arrangement that allows decisions to be made in parallel rather than in a linear sequence. The Zafiro Producer is scheduled to sail for Portugal in June. Details are included in an Oceaneering brochure: FPSO Zafiro Producer, Galveston, TX, May 1996. The Oceaneering address is 1441 Park Ten Blvd., Houston, TX, 77084- 5028.

The Zafiro Producer is rated at 268,000 deadweight tons. That is its standardized, fully-loaded weight. The empty ship accounts for only about a seventh of that weight. The rest is cargo.

The Zafiro Producer.
(Courtesy of Oceaneering press kit)


Artist's impression of the Zafiro Producer in position over the Zafiro oil fields.
(Courtesy of Oceaneering press kit)