From offshore oil and gas to shipwrecks, Allison Selman FIEAust CPEng is making waves in subsea engineering.
The ocean floor is a complicated space to work. There can be elements of civil, mechanical and chemical engineering, all thrown together with waves, currents and the challenges of an aquatic environment.
But for subsea engineer Allison Selman, who was named Engineers Australia’s Professional Engineer of the Year for WA in 2019, that’s part of the appeal. “It’s incredibly challenging [and] super fun,” she says. “No one likes doing something easy.”
As an asset integrity and lifecycle manager at Atteris, Selman’s expertise lies in the inspection, maintenance and repair of subsea equipment. It’s her job to make sure everything runs as it should, anticipating faults before they happen and preventing the release of hydrocarbons into the environment.
“Working out what’s going wrong and then getting the repair kit on site or in the water… that’s probably the hardest part,” Selman says. “Doing anything in the water is super difficult and really expensive.”
Selman says air divers typically make repairs in “shallow water” down to about 40 metres deep. Beyond that, saturation divers can be called on to make repairs down to 250 metres below the sea surface. These divers live and work in a hyperbaric chamber for up to a month at a time, until the job is done.
“There are fewer and fewer divers who do that, because it’s incredibly taxing on the body,” Selman says. “So where the industry is shifting to is what they call ‘diverless’. Now we try to use robotics to do our work. Everything’s designed to be manipulated by an ROV, a remotely-operated vehicle.”
Wrecks and ruin
Talking to Selman, it’s clear she loves the ocean. “You always start out as a diver,” she says. “And then once you dive more, you start to appreciate the marine environment and what you’re seeing.”
This love of the ocean led to Selman capturing the underwater world on film. Together with husband and fellow subsea corrosion engineer Chris Selman, she founded videography company Glass Bottom Films.
“I like to capture the behaviour of the fish and the marine life,” Selman says. “It’s always different. And they have personalities just like humans… it’s hilarious.”
The couple’s first documentary The Wreck Man was about shipwreck conservation expert Dr Ian MacLeod, from the Western Australian Museum. It sparked a fascination with decaying World War II shipwrecks off the West Australian coast, containing trapped oil that threatens to escape and harm marine life.
“When the ship is operating, it’s painted, [some] cathodic protection is maintained, and only the bit that’s submerged is protected,” Selman says. “But when the entire ship is in the ocean, all of it is corroding.”
Selman says the rate at which steel corrodes in seawater is well documented. And time is running out for shipwrecks that have been in the water since the 1940s. “There’s a concern that when the tanks collapse, if it’s got oil in it there’s only one way that oil is going to go—into the ocean,” Selman says.
Selman began volunteering for the Major Projects Foundation, a not-for-profit focused on engineering solutions to protect ecosystems and cultural heritage in the Pacific. She’s also interested in developing cathodic protection systems for shipwrecks. “It’s where you put a sacrificial anode onto a bit of metal and that anode corrodes in preference to the metal,” Selman says.
“We’ve talked about it a lot and everyone’s gone ‘too hard’. It’s not too hard… it’s pretty stock standard in our industry. It’s just getting people to understand the science and technology and not be afraid to apply it to shipwrecks.”
Transition to renewables
Selman has also turned her hand to renewables. She’s worked on offshore wind turbines in Copenhagen, as well as Australian underwater turbine and hydrogen projects. Whether she’s working on an oil and gas pipeline or a wind turbine, Selman says it’s still a bit of steel in the water. But she says understanding how something works tells her how it breaks.
Selman likens her work to recognising that something’s off with your car—such as an unusual sound, vibration or rusted part. She says it’s about knowing what to look for, where to find it, and how to get the right data. “We try to use a lot of remote technology because it’s cheaper, it’s faster [and] it’s more accurate than a human eye a lot of the time,” Selman says.
Selman is also supporting other female engineers in the industry, and in 2016 founded the Wise Professional Network for women in subsea engineering. The network spawned a popular week-long camp called Future Engineers, which teaches girls in Years 8 – 12 about the subsea and marine industries.
It’s hard to imagine Selman anywhere else. “On a platform in the middle of the ocean is the most beautiful place, especially when you finish work and you’re sitting at the top and you’re watching the sunset,” she says. “It’s amazing.”
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