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Small lab fuels energy industry

Robyn Fraser carries out testing at IPL’s New Plymouth lab.
Robyn Fraser carries out testing at IPL’s New Plymouth lab.

In a small laboratory, tucked between a car painter and a print shop in New Plymouth’s central city, Robyn Fraser is testing and analysing oil and gas samples for some of the biggest companies in the energy industry.

The lab technician is sole charge of the New Plymouth office of Independent Petroleum Laboratory Limited (IPL), which provides specialist fuels, biofuels, industrial and environmental laboratory testing services in New Zealand and the south-west Pacific. The company’s analysis helps clients’ quality assurance, and ensures that the products on the market meet New Zealand government specifications.

“The team’s quite friendly,” Robyn jokes of her solitary work life. “I listen to a lot of podcasts.

“But we use Skype a lot, so I am always connected to the team in Ruakaka.”

The “team in Ruakaka” is IPL’s 48-strong office and laboratory at Marsden Point, where IPL services the oil refinery 18 hours a day, seven days a week. IPL also has a technician who runs a lab in South Taranaki.

IPL was established in 1999 and was initially focused on fuel specification testing and aviation kerosene testing. Over the years it has expanded its services to include environmental testing, biofuels analysis, contamination and purity testing, and other services such as laboratory management, training and auditing as well as calibration and maintenance of laboratory equipment. Most of its testing and analysis is IANZ accredited, and it is regularly adding to that list.

In 2014, IPL established its laboratory in New Plymouth to service the upstream oil and gas industry.

“We had identified Taranaki as a key region because of that industry here and wanted to have a presence,” explains IPL strategic development manager Tony Hockings.

“We’d never really done any upstream analysis before but it’s very similar to our other work and we developed the techniques required to support the industry here.”

At the same time, IPL joined the Energy and Industrial Group (EIG) to develop long-term relationships and partnerships.

“It has been very beneficial and we’ve taken part in many group initiatives. The group members can benefit from each other’s core competencies, enabling us all to keep our finger on the pulse and grow our overall knowledge of the energy industry, its upcoming challenges and identify how we can best help,” Tony says.

“We brought a fresh set of expertise and skills to the group and we’ve been pleased the group has been able to benefit from those.”

At the New Plymouth lab, Robyn’s work is specific to the Taranaki oil and gas industry.

“In Taranaki we get a lot of well test samples from our upstream clients who might be producing or exploring – a lot of produced water testing to make sure the wells aren’t blocking up with scale,” she says.

A crude assay analyser is used to determine the physical and chemical characteristics of oil.

“We can fractionate the crude and test each fraction and tell the client what’s in it,” Tony says.

“What we test can influence how much the crude is worth. If there’s high level of contaminant, such as mercury or sulphur, then the crude is worth less. But that doesn’t tend to be a concern in Taranaki as the crudes don’t contain many contaminants.”

Samples from clients are delivered to the lab every day, and 20 or 30 tests may be carried out for each sample.

“The advantage of having a lab here is that beforehand, the client had to batch up half a dozen samples and send them off to Northland, which meant some of the testing was not being done in a short enough timeframe, reducing the validity of the sample,” Robyn says.

“With a lab here, key tests that need to be done within 48 hours can be done here, then we can send them up north for a wider range of tests.”

As New Zealand moves to a low-emissions energy environment, IPL is also adapting and investigating its role in supporting new energy and green solutions.

“We’re looking to expand into more new fuels testing – new energy sources – and to use our expertise in that developing area,” Tony says.

“For any new energy sources, such as hydrogen, we’ve got a lot of the skills that are transferable and we are interested in developing analysis specific to hydrogen, the regeneration of current products, and renewable materials, such as wood and crude products, from alternative processing methods.

“We understand that some of these technologies are still in their infancy, so by keeping good relationships with decision makers and by being members of organisations such as EIG and Bioenergy Association of New Zealand, we are keeping in the loop and are ready to support some of the emerging players in this industry.”

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