Un-breaking barriers

Elaine Maslin

June 1, 2017

Materials development is pushing the boundaries of how things are currently done in oil and gas. Elaine Maslin looks at some of the research underway, including ‘smart’ materials that could potentially heal themselves, and additive manufacturing.

m-pipe in production. Image from Magma Global.

Everything we touch is material, in both meanings of the word, and ever more so as the industry moves toward more challenging arenas, such as high temperatures and pressures, or more corrosive or erosive products. There is potential for new materials to help push these boundaries, from using graphene for subsea separation to using composites for flowlines and even risers, saving weight, material and manufacturing costs.

Andrew Low, global technology director, Intecsea, says traditional materials and welds are being pushed to the limit of their operating envelope in some of the applications they’re being used in today.

“Alternative solutions are required,” Low says. “A shift in mindset, over the last few years, has seen consideration of materials technology and innovation move forward. We only need to look at the increase in the use of composite pipes from organizations like Magma Global and Airborne Oil & Gas, where they provide an alternate solution to steel jumpers or hybrid systems, to realize that times are changing. Removal of welded joints; often an area of such focus in pipeline installation activities, by using mechanical connectors from the likes of GMC also eliminates a potential failure mode where the weld may be pushed to its limit due to strength, material incompatibility issues with the environment, or even traditional welding defect issues.”

DNV GL launched an industry project to help qualify the likes of thermoplastic composite pipe (TCP), made by Magma and Airborne, more cheaply. DNV GL says composites like these – in which plastics are combined with other materials for added strength, flexibility, fatigue resistance, etc., is relatively mature in other sectors, such as aerospace. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft’s complete structure is made of the stuff, for example.

Using a different material to steel, something more readily reusable, or that could be assembled and reassembled, could lend itself to repeat deployments, opening a more economic route to develop small pools, suggests Luca Corradi, Innovation Network Director, the Oil & Gas Technology Centre.

Earlier this year, Siemens announced a breakthrough in 3D printing: an international project team with contributions from Siemens engineers in Finspång,Sweden; Lincoln, UK; and Berlin, Germany, together with experts from Materials Solutions in Worcester, UK, successfully finished performance testing under full-load conditions of the first gas turbine blades ever to be produced using additive manufacturing. Infographic from Siemens.

Smart materials

Other areas, such as smart materials are also coming into focus, Low says. Smart materials are those that have one or more properties that can be significantly changed in a controlled fashion by external stimuli, such as stress, temperature, moisture, pH, electric or magnetic fields.

This area is under focus at BP. The oil major firm set up the BP International Centre for Advanced Materials (BP-ICAM), involving the University of Manchester, University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, and the University of Illinois, to look at the potential of materials that are stronger, lighter, “intelligent,” and even “self-healing.”

For BP, a core focus is on corrosion prevention. BP-ICAM researchers are developing new materials that are resistant to corrosion and can reliably extend the lifetime of oil and gas infrastructure. University of Illinois researchers are creating self-healing coatings for metals and pipelines that can sense damage, stop it from worsening and even self-repair, without any external intervention. The coatings have tiny micro-capsules embedded within them that release a healing fluid to repair the material as it starts corroding.

One project includes investigating whether an alloy can be designed to prevent hydrogen embrittlement by designing it with properties that trap and react with the hydrogen to make it unreactive so that it doesn’t make it the alloy brittle, lengthening its life.

Dealing with existing coatings and making them last longer has pushed Shell in the UK to try new methods, including using CO2-based dry ice to blast away old paint or corrosion, instead of using grit blasting, before applying longer lasting coatings. This method has recently been made the default for Shell.

New coatings on top of this, such as sprayed aluminum, on top of which paint can then be applied, to create a 25-year-life coating, can help to minimize future maintenance requirements, says Alistair Hope, Shell, on existing facilities, but also on new ones, like Clair Ridge.


Graphene hit the headlines in 2010, when researchers who characterized the two-dimensional and strong material won a Nobel Prize. It’s a two-dimensional, very strong form of carbon, structured in hexagonal lattice.

The potential for applying graphene in the oil and gas industry could spread across drilling and oil spill clean-up to gas-water-oil separation and osmosis membranes, Low says.

He gives possible examples, such as dynamic graphene filters for selective gas-water-oil separation or for desalination. “Could its superior strength and small size take it downhole to improve the drilling process,” he poses. “If it’s stretchable, could graphene provide an answer for an engineer with an idea that will take directional drilling to the next level? Could graphene balls improve completions, carry corrosion inhibitor or boost production?”

Corradi also mentioned nanotechnology – or carbon tubes – which could change refining technology.

Additive manufacturing

3D printing could have wider benefits for the oil and gas industry. GE has been investing heavily in this space, including recently buying German firm Concept Laser, which is focused on the aerospace, medical and dental industries, as well as automotive, while also developing items like fuel injection nozzles for engines.

Rolls Royce has also been investigating this technology, using electron beam melting and electron beam welding, in turbines, to avoid the need for casting or forging. Yet, a late 2016 report, Additive Manufacturing UK, by the UK Additive Manufacturing Steering Group doesn’t mention offshore or even renewables as a sector catered for.

Low thinks 3D printing of spares from powder is likely to increase and save costs from not having to carry inventory. Other benefits include being able to rapid prototype and print quite complex geometries, otherwise not possible through traditional manufacturing methods. And, because complex fabrication facilities are not required, manufacturing possibilities are opened up to smaller firms.

“With additive manufacturing, you can produce shapes you cannot make with more traditional forms of manufacturing,” Corradi says. “Combine that with using different materials and artificial intelligence [in the design process] and there is the potential to unleash new creativity.”

Stuart Ferguson, CEO at relatively new start-up FrontRow Energy Technology Group, says that 3D printing is already transforming the creation, development, marketing and production of new products.

“For even the smallest companies, 3D printers enable the conversion of ideas into functional prototypes at a cost and speed that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago,” Ferguson says. “One FrontRow company, Well-Sense Technology, used 3D printing extensively to develop its fiber-line intervention (FLI) technology; a method for disposable optical sensing. From the initial FLI concept to the first test of a working prototype in a well took only a few months, with many design iterations along the way.

“3D printing also allows shapes to be created that are difficult, if not impossible, to make using conventional machining,” he adds. “Furthermore, complexity tends to reduce cost in printed parts, as the cost depends only upon the volume of material used, rather than the material that is removed and wasted.”

Ferguson says that FrontRow is already using printing of high-nickel alloys for ultra-compact well intervention tools. Within a few years, he adds, the oil industry can expect to see very large printed structures being used as a matter of routine.

However, this technique doesn’t have to be limited to the design and new manufacturing space. “I’d love to see additive manufacturing make an impact on repair work,” Corradi says. “Could you put a 3D printer on a pipe to repair the pipe? It is possible with laser cladding, but, today, this requires a controlled environment. The next step is creating a mobile version.”