The markets: Oil and gas (2018)

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.

The salt in seawater makes its oceans Earth’s largest naturally occurring corrosive environment. 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 hostile 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 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 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. 

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.” As the name implies, 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. According to the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE, Richardson, TX, US), 60% of all new oil & gas wells globally are frac’ed, and 2.5 million frac’ing procedures have occurred since 2012 — more than 1 million of them in the US alone.


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