Innovative valve technology manufacturer Oxford Flow likes to make things simple. With its focus on minimising moving parts and improving performance, the young company believes it is set to change the face of the energy, water and industrial sectors.
Born out of Oxford University’s Department of Engineering Science midway through 2015, the company began its journey with the installation of its IP series pressure regulating valve in South West Water’s live distribution network. Since then, it has installed valves across Europe, US, and the Middle East, as well as successfully raising over £15m in capital ventures.
Marketing itself as ‘reimagining valve technology’, Oxford Flow can be considered a front-runner in the brave new world into which the global energy transition is heading. Faris Churcher, Principal Applications Engineer at Oxford Flow, recently spoke to gasworld about this transition and how the company is best placed to adapt to a changing energy landscape.
Speaking about the history of the company, its target markets and scope of applications, Churcher said, “Over the five and a half years, a lot of our experience in the gas sector has been in the UK, and we’ve been building products around what the UK and Europe.”
“We’ve also been focusing on water distribution, gas distribution and transmission across the world.” However, the scope of applications is constantly growing as a result of continuous innovation in the company.
The company also sees international demand for its products, an area capitalised upon through the significant overseas experience of its CEO Neil Poxon, CFO Tim Williams and a team of Business Development experts in the US, Europe and the Middle East.
Through working with water utility companies in the Middle East Oxford Flow leveraged contacts that enabled it to segue into gas distribution and transmission systems.
Preparing for an energy transition
The success of its gas-related products came at a time when worldwide industry began to seriously examine its carbon footprint and the transition to renewable energy sources started to take shape.
With the renewable revolution gaining further traction, Churcher commented on what Oxford Flow has noticed, saying, “In the US and across the world, our equipment is ideally suited for the energy transition to green gases for the decarbonisation of heat and power generation as well.”
As energy companies decide to make the move to a greener production line to increase sustainability and get ahead of the competition, Oxford Flow considers itself ready for the inevitable increase in demand.
Churcher states various advantages of using its products, including fewer potential failure points as the valves are all machined and made from 316 stainless steel, in addition to containing no diaphragm. This results in a product that requires much less maintenance than conventional equivalents, giving rise to technology that could far more easily adapt to an energy transition.
“All of those things add up to a product offering that can future-proof energy systems across the world for power generation, gas distribution and generally transitioning to hydrogen, . Economic factors mean that budgets are being constrained everywhere,” he said, adding, “So that includes maintenance, that includes procuring new stations. As a result, lots of energy providers are focusing on individual asset replacement.”
With Churcher noting that the company, since its inception, has seen no failures of its gas regulators in a wide variety of applications, this reduction in budget for maintenance crews provides Oxford Flow with a strong advantage over competitors.
A safe solution
Elaborating on the company’s cautious approach towards hydrogen applications, Churcher said that these high pressures and temperatures could cause problems with hydrogen embrittlement and attack, that can artificially fatigue the metal especially in castings and negatively impact elastomeric seals on conventional valves.
Referring to the potential for leaks with worn elastomeric components, he said, “If not handled correctly, it has the potential to be a very dangerous gas to be working with; there have been historical accidents with Hydrogen in the past and as a result, the general public has very obvious concerns around adopting Hydrogen for heating.
Despite its dangers, studies have shown that hydrogen itself can be very safe, as long as operational policies and procedures are updated to support the change, which Oxford Flow is helping to shape. Churcher explained that a common challenge with hydrogen in pressurised systems is the risk of fugitive emissions, which has the potential to cause hazardous areas to form as hydrogen can leak through just about anything, even metal in some cases, but especially elastomer seals and control stems.
Oxford Flow can reduce these emissions by utilising (amongst others) its ES Series stemless valve, which has recently been tested to the fugitive emission standards from the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), receiving its Class A rating which, according to Churcher, implies that fugitive emissions are a thousand times lower than its nearest competitor.
Prevention is better than cure
If nothing else, Oxford Flow seems to be highly adept at producing innovative technology that runs parallel with, or even ahead of, the needs of an advancing industry. With its focus on reducing the need for frequent maintenance and/or repair, the company has developed an intelligent system known as the Intelligent PRV, which is currently installed in water systems across the world.
Designed to predict when an asset is likely to require maintenance, as well as providing remote control and enhanced telemetry, Churcher sees this as one of the ‘cornerstones for development’ in utility networks along with the energy transition itself.
Explaining how the technology works, he said, “I think that what we’re doing with our intelligence system is actually quite impressive, in that we are employing a lot of machine learning characteristics so that we can learn how networks operate and what sort of behaviour they can then predict, which can give us predictive maintenance tips.”
Churcher explained that even a small change in pressure or flow control can indicate that some time in the near future, equipment could require maintenance. Remote diagnostics sending a maintenance team to perform a 15-minute, pre-emptive service can mean avoiding a costly and potentially dangerous emergency system shut down sometime in the future.
In terms of future development, Oxford Flow considers itself highly flexible and geared towards creating bespoke solutions for clients who request a specific problem to be solved.
With an eye on the net zero transition, Churcher concluded by commenting on the company’s support of low-carbon solutions, saying, “We are one of the technical leaders in terms of hydrogen development, so we want to support governments, energy producers and energy providers, in any way we can in their transition to net zero.”
“We can be flexible, and we want to help them succeed and beat their targets because meeting them is a good start, but it’s got to go further, so we would like them to succeed and better their goals.”
The confidence of the company in its own products, combined with its willingness to adapt to a changing energy environment, could well position Oxford Flow at the forefront of the sector during the global energy transition. That is, at least, the objective.