The markets: Oil and gas (2014)

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.

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The easy stuff is already found.

In the world of fossil resources, that’s been a truism for a generation. Year by year, new oil and gas fields are more scarce and, therefore, more difficult to find. Sometimes, new resources are entirely inaccessible with conventional equipment and techniques.

In the face of that reality, composites are earning respect. Increasingly recognized for their suitability in, and tailorability to, specific and demanding requirements in tough oil and gas industry operations, composites continue to displace metals.

The result? Currently, the oil and gas industry is experiencing one of its longer sustained booms. It’s largely due to new extraction technologies and expansion into unconventional spaces: drilling for oil and gas in ultradeep seawater, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to recover hydrocarbons and methane, and horizontal drilling technology. These methods aid more efficient well development and abet subsequent extraction of dry and wet gas in oil deposits.

Unconventional extraction methods require a variety of technologies that include high-performance fiber-reinforced polymers (FRPs). “In addition, the traditional North Sea, shallow coast Africa and Gulf of Mexico oil and gas sectors have a renewed focus on safety, redundancy and system qualifications,” says Michael Ruby, global composites business manager, engineered materials, at Celanese Corporation (Florence, Ky.). “This is also driving a need for lighter weight, higher strength, corrosion-resistant and chemical-resistant materials like composites.” So far, the most significant advances have been in flexible pipe and fluid-handling systems, with some notable progress in structural applications.

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 and the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused market uncertainty. It will take time for offshore efforts to recover, says the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA, Sugar Land, Texas).

The production of composite risers, a hoped-for megamarket for carbon fiber composites in the offshore oil industry, did not materialize, but carbon has made 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). A high-performance, spoolable carbon fiber composite pipe was launched by Magma Global Ltd. (Portsmouth, U.K.). Called m-pipe, the new product is designed to meet the challenges of deepwater, sour service, high-pressure, high-temperature and highly dynamic subsea applications, says the company. About one-tenth the weight in water of an equivalent steel riser, m-pipe provides a significant advantage when it comes to reducing platform hang-off loads, and it is reportedly easy to deploy.

Recently, composites found a niche in sound-deadening technology. Noise can be deafening on an offshore oil rig, given the multiple noise sources that operate 24/7, such as pumps, machinery and drill motors. Typically, insulated steel enclosures, designed to reduce noise to specified levels, are used to surround working equipment, but the steel enclosures can weigh more than 20,000 lb (9 metric tonnes) apiece — a considerable burden on weight-constrained platforms.

An alternative enclosure at half the weight was developed by a team that includes Mundal Subsea AS (Sæbøvågen), Frank Mohn Flatoy AS (Frekhaug), and Diab International AB (Laholm, Norway). Introduced at an Offshore Technology Days conference in Stavanger, Norway, the enclosure concept combines DIAB’s Divinycell P core, at a thickness that provides the required panel strength and sound insulation, with fiberglass laminate skins made with a fire-retardant resin. To surround the equipment, custom-sized panels are bolted together and mounted to the platform floor in a steel frame, says the company. Four units, built in cooperation with Mundal Subsea AS (Sæbøvågen) and Frank Mohn Flatoy AS (Frekhaug), for end-user Statoil (Oslo), measured 5.7m/18.5 ft in length, 2.9m/9.4 ft wide and 3.7m/12 ft tall and are designed to withstand a seawater wave impact of 0.6 bar/8.7 psi. Noise tests have shown a reduction from 114 dB inside to far below 70 dB outside. And the total weight savings is more than 40,000 lb (18 metric tonnes), a huge plus for offshore platform system designers.

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