Clever composites

Elaine Maslin

March 1, 2016

Sometimes, new materials and new manufacturing processes fortuitously emerge, just at the time they are needed. At least Magma Global hopes that’s the case. Elaine Maslin reports.

m-pipe in production. Images from Magma Global.

Magma Global has developed an additive manufacturing process for making bonded thermoplastic pipe, trademarked m-Pipe, using a composite of carbon fiber and PEEK engineering polymer.

It’s high-end stuff. The manufacturing process creates a single solid wall, like steel, but due to the additive manufacturing process, dimensional control is possible, which means end fittings can be manufactured as a continuous part of the pipe or flexible riser.

The firm’s ultimate target is the flexible riser market, where moves towards depths beyond 3000m, and higher temperature and pressures as well as corrosive fluids have started to challenge existing technologies.

Like the other main firm in this market, Dutch outfit Airborne Oil & Gas (OE: September 2015), Magma has started with products more likely to be palatable to the risk-averse oil industry – downlines, jumpers and flowlines.

“Work in the oil and gas sector [at Insensys] alerted us to problems with flexible pipes subsea, from a corrosion and fatigue point of view,” says Magma Global co-founder Martin Jones, who founded Insensys, which produced fiber optic measurement tools for monitoring load and integrity on a variety of different structures. “We were also quite involved in carbon fiber and it struck us, where conditions are difficult or challenging, in some instances, carbon fiber is a better bet.”

A boost line for Transocean

It’s also more expensive, but by using carbon fiber and PEEK, it’s lighter than steel by a factor of 10, which could significantly reduce installation spread scopes, it doesn’t corrode and can cope with high temperatures, pressures and corrosive fluids, such as H2S, CO2 and also well intervention or remediation chemicals, offering lowering opex costs, Magma says.

Magma Global was founded in 2009 by Jones and a colleague from Insensys. Since then, the firm has been building its credentials in the carbon fiber field, through subsidiary company Magma Structures, which constructed the world’s tallest masts – at 300m – for a yacht last August. It now has a 368m mast in production, based on its carbon fiber technology.

But, while the masts are made using carbon fiber and epoxy, Magma Global uses carbon fiber and PEEK. Victrex PEEK is used because it can cope with the higher temperatures in the oil and gas industry, as well as the chemicals and corrosive fluids involved, says Magma. However, this meant Magma the firm had to develop a new manufacturing process, which has leveraged the latest developments in additive manufacturing, also called 3D printing.

Because of Victrex PEEK’s high melting temperature [343°C], it’s not easy to melt large amounts at a time. As PEEK is difficult to process, PEEK and carbon fibers are first converted into tape. Multiple high powered lasers are then rotated around the pipe to weld this tape onto a mandrel, using a 3D printing process to manufacture the relevant m-pipe size required. The process has been qualified to produce pipe resistant to up to 130°C, with a 200°C resistant pipe having also been produced as a prototype. 

m-pipe production reels in Portsmouth. 

Another benefit is that the production equipment is about the size of a 15ft container, making it potentially easy to start-up in country manufacturing. The main space requirements are the spools for the pipe as it passes back and forth through the laser heads. The manufacturing process also enables the oil and gas products to meet higher qualification criteria than they would in the yachting industry, says Jones.

What’s more, the additive manufacturing process opens possibilities around dimensional control. “We can thicken the end to create a mechanical lock for the end fitting,” Jones says. “This would be perfectly feasible on a riser, to vary the wall thickness through the riser. You might want greater collapse strength and axial strength at the bottom. At the top, where you’re worried about supporting the rest of the pipe, it would be built for axial strength. We have not done this yet, but it is feasible.”

Magma has been in production since 2012, Jones says, producing items including booster lines for Transocean drilling risers, and it was due to ship out a subsea jumper system as we went to press. Its second and largest production line, able to manufacture 5km of 2in pipe or 2km of 4in pipe, is currently working on a 3km, 3in, 15,000psi, down line designed for the US Gulf of Mexico (OE: February 2016). 6in product is also in the pipeline, led by a BP project.

The Deepstar 20,000 psi pipe

While there has been resistance to composites in the industry, Jones thinks it’s changing. “What we are seeing is the development of the technology. Ten years ago you couldn’t do what we do today. The manufacturing process wasn’t there. It has moved forward thanks in part to the aerospace industry.”

Industry is also actively helping to develop the technology. Last April, Magma started a 2.5 year project with BP and Subsea 7, supported by the National Composites Centre and Innovate UK, to qualify 6-12in m-Pipe for risers and jumper systems for deep water environments. Magma is also working with the DeepStar joint industry technology development project group on a 20,000 psi, 4in jumper. “That’s something no-one has been able to do and it’s really not that difficult with the technology we have got,” Jones says. “Existing technology is working hard to keep up with the environment it is in, whereas this technology has room to spare.”

Magma is also working on other components of the riser system as well as other components of sea floor architecture, but that’s as much as Jones is willing to divulge right now.

“I think we have a technology that’s a step change in performance,” he says. “It enables you to re-engineer the cost base for subsea installation capex but also longer term opex.”