The markets: Oil and gas (2011)
Composites now are widely recognized in deepwater drilling scenarios, because their ability to stand up to the harsh subsea environment enables oil & gas prospectors to retrieve reserves at greater sea-floor depths.
Composites are recognized as an enabling technology in deepwater drilling scenarios, because the materials are able to stand up to the harsh subsea environment while delivering lower overall system weight. However, the recent economic downturn has resulted in significantly lower per-barrel prices, fomenting uncertainty. And in the wake of the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama Administration placed a six-month moratorium on U.S. offshore drilling activities. Although the ban was lifted in October 2010, it will take time for offshore efforts to resume, says the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA, Sugar Land, Texas).
Production of composite risers, a hoped-for megamarket for carbon fiber composites in the offshore oil arena, has yet to be realized, but carbon is making headway in deepsea umbilicals and small-diameter piping, among other applications. An umbilical is a bundled collection of steel and/or thermoplastic tubing and electric cabling used to transmit chemicals, hydraulic fluids, electric power and two-way communication and control signals between topside production vessels and subsea equipment. Aker Solutions ASA (formerly Aker Kvaerner, Lysaker, Norway) introduced a dynamic umbilical that features an outer casing reinforced along its length with multiple carbon-fiber rods pultruded by Epsilon Composite (Gaillan en Médoc, France).
Until large-component composite applications like risers are routinely specified, smaller composite parts will continue to shine. In one unusual example, deepwater offshore composites specialist Spencer Composites Corp. (Sacramento, Calif.) created an inner pressure capsule 5.15 inches/130 mm thick for a deepsea submersible vehicle. The DeepFlight Challenger winged vessel was designed for Steve Fossett by Hawkes Ocean Technologies (San Francisco, Calif.) For details, see link at right.
Fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP) replacing coated steel in more reinforced-concrete applications.
Compared to legacy materials like steel, aluminum, iron and titanium, composites are still coming of age, and only just now are being better understood by design and manufacturing engineers. However, composites’ physical properties — combined with unbeatable light weight — make them undeniably attractive.
Oven-cured, vacuum-bagged prepregs show promise in production primary structures.