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11/16/2018 | 3 MINUTE READ

The markets: Oil and gas (2019)

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Composites have long been recognized as an enabling technology in deepwater drilling scenarios. Their most recent role is being played out in expanding practice of hydraulic fracturing.

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Oceans are Earth’s largest naturally occurring corrosive environment, thanks to salt in seawater. Compound that with man-made multipliers, such as high temperatures and pressures and the host of aggressive chemicals, solvents and other fluids required to operate an offshore oil rig, and that’s a recipe for conditions that, over time, can be deleterious to almost any material, but especially to metals. 

Not surprisingly, inherently corrosion-resistant composite materials have increasingly been used to mold previously metal parts deployed in a host of offshore drilling platform applications. These include non-load-bearing topside platform components, such as fire-water mains, high- and low-pressure tubing, processing vessels and tanks, fire-blast panels, gratings and handrails, as well as newer subsea structures, such as carbon fiber rod umbilicals and components for protecting wellheads, manifolds and other equipment related to subsea processing. Composites also are making tentative inroads into higher volume, more demanding offshore oil and gas applications, such as the systems of pipes with which producers explore for oil, find it and eventually bring it up from the wellhead to the surface. Although many are still in development — a process that includes a lengthy and rigorous qualification phase — the impetus behind this R&D is seen by most everyone in the industry as significant. The question is not if but when offshore oil operators will be compelled to make greater use of lightweight composites in structural undersea pipelines. This question is all the more critical as exploration companies develop subsea oil fields at greater distances from shore and do so at unprecedented depths. In 2003 in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, only 35% of production was from wells at depths of more than 300m. By 2015, that figure was 95%. More to the point, more than 20% of Gulf wells are now at depths greater than 2000m. At these depths, traditional steel pipe systems pose serious logistical problems and tally huge costs. 

In March 2018, TechnipFMC (Paris, France) announced a partnership with Magma Global Ltd. (Portsmouth, UK) to develop a new carbon fiber composite hybrid flexible pipe (HFP) for use in offshore applications. HFP is expected to provide increased strength and fatigue performance, while also achieving dramatic weight and cost reductions, for subsea fluid transport applications.

In June 2018, Airborne Oil & Gas (AOG, IJmuiden, The Netherlands) began a qualification program of a thermoplastic composite pipe (TCP) riser that aims to provide a disruptive new riser pipe technology for operators, with international deepwater applications. 

Meanwhile, an unprecedented US onshore energy boom during the past decade has brought the country to near fossil-fuel energy independence and put composite manufacturers to work producing a new, expendable well technology. Credit goes to a composites-aided technology called hydraulic fracturing, often termed “fracking” or, more correctly, “frac’ing.” The process artificially fractures low-permeability rock strata with explosives and then injects pressurized, sand-laced solutions into those fractures to facilitate oil and natural gas extraction. Each wellbore requires 10-40 multi-component tools called “frac plugs” (and accompanying “frac balls”) to stimulate multiple oil- or gas-producing layers, or “stages.” Demand is high for these critical parts, which are typically made with composites. In 2014 it was estimated that demand for these downhole parts exceed more than 20,000 parts per week. According to the US Energy Information Administration (Washington, DC, US), in 2018 the total number of active oil and gas rigs working to drill new wells in the US averaged 1,013, keeping the total count for 2018 on track to be the highest since 2014. Reportedly, in 2016, hydraulically fractured horizontal wells accounted for 69% of all oil and natural gas wells drilled in the US — about 670,000 of the 977,000 producing wells were hydraulically fractured and horizontally drilled.

In July 2018, Exel Composites’ (Vantaa, Finland) company Diversified Structural Composites (DSC) developed a fiber-optic-embedded carbon fiber composite rod for Ziebel’s (Tananger, Norway) well intervention system. The DSC-manufactured 6.2-km-long, 15-mm-diameter carbon fiber rod (the Z-Rod), is designed to deliver multiple fiber optic cables securely into a hostile downhole environment. Typically, the rod is deployed into a producing or injecting well for 48 hours, where the fiber optic sensors measure temperature and acoustic vibrations along its length. This enables a variety of applications — including flow allocation, fluid movement visualization, leak detection and stimulation fluid monitoring — which are valuable for optimal well and reservoir management.

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