There are plenty of reasons for energy companies to keep a close eye on how well their oil pipes stand up to heavy use and environmental effects. First and foremost for many are their bottom lines, but it's also important to keep these pipes in good shape because of the environmental damage a breakdown can wreak in short order. With all this in mind, it's little wonder companies are trying to tackle oil pipe corrosion on multiple fronts.
One of the biggest issues – recently outlined in new research published in the Nature Research journal Materials Degradation – showed that corrosion starts at the nanoscale, making it incredibly difficult to identify even in optimal conditions. Simply put, steel corrosion happens just about everywhere because of its ubiquity in oil and gas infrastructure, and often the reasons that spills occur with pipelines is that some aspect of that infrastructure breaks down at times that cannot be predicted.
While energy companies will typically replace equipment on an ongoing basis using predictive models, the issues that lead to corrosion and equipment failure at the nano level are often unpredictable. The researchers hope that by doing a better job of outlining the precipitants that lead to these nanoscale events, stakeholders can do more to mitigate failure risk with corrosion testing and preventive measures.
A human-machine partnership
Researchers are also trying to get a bird's eye view of the issues at the heart of oil pipe corrosion, as a team from Spain's University of Seville will begin testing whether drones can be used to inspect infrastructure so that humans don't have to. There are many reasons why this could be feasible, not the least of which is reducing risk to human workers who may need significant safety equipment to conduct such testing.
Working with a human operator, a drone could be piloted to the part of a system that needed to be inspected, then put into auto-pilot mode so that it stayed in place while the operator switched to controlling the device's arms, after which point it could measure and scan a given area for signs of corrosion. The reason that this kind of man-and-machine operation could be so important, researchers found, is that even in small oil refineries, companies devote thousands of man hours per year to inspecting pipes and other equipment for corrosion, and as much as 30% of those spot checks take places in areas that are difficult or dangerous to access.
A new type of metal
Of course, many of the corrosive effects for oil pipes happen because steel production hasn't evolved much in recent years, but that could soon change, according to Phys.org. Scientists at Russia's National University of Science and Technology recently developed a new method for producing rolled steel, resulting in the new grade known as "SeverCorr" that can significantly double the lifetime of components in oil field pipes – which currently stands at only about two years – by making them far more resistant to corrosion.
That, in turn, provides a benefit for oil companies because it cuts operational costs and environmental risks simultaneously.
A way to integrate
While all these new developments are ongoing, energy firms are also investing heavily in the internet of things to get a better understanding of their oil grids overall, according to IoT for All. With new sensor technology, it's easier than ever to monitor more aspects of a system to identify areas where corrosion risk may be on the rise. When companies have more access to better data on the health of their infrastructure, they can also make more informed decisions about how to uphold those standards on an ongoing basis.
This, too, reduces operating costs and environmental hazards, as well as puts companies in a better position to meet regulatory standards and slash the amount of time systems have to be shut down for maintenance. In addition, human error is far less likely to be a risk in either inspection or repair and replacement efforts.
Given that so many industry developments are cropping up on an ongoing basis, it's incumbent upon oil and gas executives to make sure they are carefully monitoring their needs and evaluating whether any emerging technologies could help them address those issues. Even a few minor changes could go a long way toward ensuring more effective corrosion testing and, in doing so, averting potential problems.