Campus & Community

ABS CEO Examines How Industry is Pushing Technology Boundaries in Energy Exploration

The world’s population is expected to increase by 1 billion people between now and 2025, with nearly all of this growth in developing nations.

And as China and India become more affluent and increase their energy needs, meeting these needs will be an enormous challenge and require energy exploration in more extreme environments, according to the head of one the world’s largest and most respected international classification societies.

Christopher J. Wiernicki, chairman and CEO of the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), spoke about how technological innovation is helping the world extract energy resources in some of the world’s harshest environments, as he headlined the Stevens Deans’ Seminar Series on campus in November.

Wiernicki is also chairman of the AMS Group, a global leader in risk consulting services, and an internationally recognized naval architect and business leader.  He spoke on “Technology Transforms Today’s Frontiers into Tomorrow’s Front Lines,” before a standing-room-only audience of students, faculty and staff inside the Babbio Auditorium.

Wiernicki began his talk by focusing on what ABS does. The organization is in the business of safety, he said, as it focuses on protecting  shipping vessels and offshore structures by developing rules and standards for their design, construction  and maintenance, and making sure that these vessels and structures are certified and in compliance with these standards.

A number of these vessels serve the offshore and energy markets, which Wienicki predicted will become more important to the U.S. in the next five to 10 years. The boom in shale gas extraction, for example, is beginning to change U.S. energy policy, as the U.S. transitions from being an importer to an exporter of energy, he said.

The maritime and offshore industries are pushing the technology boundaries in their pursuit of energy sources, Wiernicki said. One challenge is that commercial returns and safety can be competing priorities, he said. Another is that these vessels and structures are moving into new frontiers, with extreme weather and operating conditions, to find new sources of energy.

Deep water and the Arctic are two extreme environments now being explored, and Wiernicki said that the challenge for the new fleet of vessels is to adapt their designs and embrace novel designs that function well in these harsh conditions.

“We are moving into significantly different waters and moving into a harsher environment,” he said. A crucial part of any future ship design will be, of course, its safety and a thorough look at the life cycle of a ship’s performance.

“We must never lose site of the safety and environmental concerns of every future advance,” said Wienicki, who several times cited the 2011 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

A major challenge will be: can we do better with our ship designs and still reduce risk? A way to reduce risk, Wiernicki said, is through strong technology.

Wiernicki cited computational fluid dynamics (CFD) as playing an important role in the future of ship design.

“This technology has the potential to change how we challenge problems of the future,” he said. 

Research in the areas of ice mechanics and nanotechnology are also important, with nanotechnology particularly needing more research but having great potential, he said.

Wiernicki offered his audience some guiding principles when developing the designs of future ships or offshore units. One is designing for the life cycle of the vessel, factoring in not only design requirements but also maintainability. Other principles he offered: assess and mitigate risk; embrace new break-through technologies (“Do not be afraid of innovation,” he said. “It is a friend.”); ensure that engineers and finance professionals work together to assess risk and design for the future; and adherence to safety. Wiernicki called this the most important principle—never compromising safety.

“You trade on your integrity every day,” he said. “That is your true north.”

As a thank you for his lecture, Wiernicki received a framed painting of the “America,” the yacht commissioned by the Stevens family that won the first competition of what became the America’s Cup.