There are 4,023,360 kilometers laid in the United States. Nearly 25,000 kilometers are planned in the Middle East. The world’s longest stretches for around 10,000 kilometers over China and Central Asia. We’re talking about pipelines, and in total, there are enough to wrap around the equator more than eight times. Beneath our feet and over our heads, oil, natural gas, biofuels, water, hydrogen – and occasionally, even beer – is transported from production to consumption through the world’s pipelines.
Ring of steel
Much of that pipe is made of steel, with polyethylene accounting for some shorter distances and low-pressure environments. And there are good reasons for sticking with steel in many cases: it is, after all, excellent at resisting both high temperatures and high pressures.
But, steel also comes with some major associated risks. It is costly to produce, transport and install. It’s unwieldy and inflexible. And it is exceptionally energy/carbon intensive at almost every stage, from the mining of iron ore and manufacture of billets and plates to pipeline construction and operational maintenance and on to end-of-life recycling and replacement.
What’s more, it corrodes, and it erodes. Not immediately, but over time, and often in unexpected or unseen spots. Maintaining safety and pipe integrity is, therefore, an arduous and never-ending undertaking.
Despite these problems, steel has been the default option available for most applications through habit as well as established supply chains and industry practice. Operators have tolerated lengthy install times and the risks of on-site hot-work because the only available alternative pipeline material, plastics, have not had the pressure capacity to be a viable replacement — until now.
We have relied on steel pipelines for so long that it can be hard to imagine a feasible alternative. But there are options for energy and industrial operations which may offer real, tangible benefits.
A new era
The current financial, operational and political environment have made new alternatives even more important. In short, the industry is being required to cut costs and to rapidly decarbonize. Dependence on steel when it is not necessary hinders both goals.
So, what is the new alternative? Research into novel material sciences has moved out of the lab and into the field on the back of Baker Hughes’ commitment to revolutionize composite engineered materials for their next generation of products. The result is Baker Hughes’ reinforced, thermoplastic pipe – which is already being widely (and economically) deployed in key areas and showing a great deal of promise for even wider usage.
The pipe is a composite of selected non-metallic materials, which are designed to give it strength and durability to withstand much higher temperatures and pressures than traditional polyethylene pipe over a full life-cycle, typically 20 years, but the product can be designed to operate up to 50 years of duty. That means it can be used to optimize the backbone of many flowline and pipeline networks. For example, certain designs of non-metallic pipe can now deliver fluid pressures up to 2,250 PSI and temperatures up to 180°F. These are available in 8” diameter, which means they are fit for higher-pressure, longer-distance transport and post-processing flowline duties.
When deployed instead of steel, this technology can cut installation time in half and reduce the installed cost of the pipeline by more than 20% and can materially impact the total CAPEX and OPEX over the asset lifetime as well as slash the asset carbon/energy footprint.
Several factors contribute towards these reduced costs. The first is that reinforced thermoplastic is much lighter and more flexible than steel, with individual pipeline sections available in much longer lengths on a reel.
Critically, because it is spoolable, this instantly makes it easier and cheaper to transport and install: no more welding together 40ft. steel line pipe joints over miles of difficult terrain. The other impactful outcome for customers is that it massively shortens the time from project initiation to production, which is beneficial for overall project economics.
Additionally, this technology can demonstrably reduce HSE risk exposure. Hundreds of meters of non-metallic pipe can be laid without connectors or welding, which reduces the construction crew size needed on the right-of-way. As the pipeline spools are pressure tested individually, it also greatly reduces the number of joints in the pipeline, which in turn reduces the risk of a hydro test anomaly.
That leads us to maintenance budgets. Reinforced thermoplastic does not corrode – it is stable over time when exposed to a wide range of fluids, gases and chemicals. It can withstand H2S, CO2, water, sand, and contaminants in the oil or gas flow and can be designed to work for a specified life, typically 20 years, at maximum pressure and temperature without intervention – whether that’s the injection of chemical corrosion inhibitors, operational corrosion monitoring or inspection and disruptive repair work.
These advantages are immediately clear. What is perhaps less obvious at first is that thermoplastic pipe can reduce required land-use quite substantially. Because the installation operation is relatively simple, it requires fewer on-site support facilities, dedicated equipment such as pipe bending machines and side-booms and fewer truck movements – that in turn reduces the pipeline right-of-way width that is needed, as well as associated environmental disruption, so owners can buy or lease less land.
Finally, there are the wider environmental aspects – an increasingly important issue for today’s energy and industrial sectors. Non-metallic pipe simply reduces the lifetime environmental impact of any project. In addition, it can be used to transport CO2 to carbon-storage facilities or to move the hydrogen that will become a key component of tomorrow’s energy and industrial sectors – allowing thermoplastics to play a vital role in the conversion of existing infrastructure to carry these gases.
The research continues
Our technological advances in pipe design and material composition have already produced significant results. It wasn’t that long ago that an 8’’ non-metallic pipe was, quite literally, a pipe dream. Now it’s becoming available in versatile designs with different lining types – such as nylon, Polypropylene sulfide (PPS), Polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) and High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) – and a structure that is optimized for purpose in different applications.
Research, development and innovation are continuing. Attention is turning to manufacturing and how machine-learning algorithms can be deployed to enhance our understanding of reinforced thermoplastics and improve performance across a variety of operating conditions. There are plenty of promising developments that can add greater robustness to pipe design and qualification, optimize load-bearing capabilities to fit terrain and flow characteristics, and expand the applications in which non-metal pipe can be safely and successfully installed.
There are occasions where carrying on as before is exactly the right strategy to pursue. But this is not one of them. The energy sector, our core customer base, is at a crucial inflection point. Operators need to reduce total expenditure over the lifetime of each of their assets to secure future investment in major project developments. It needs a positive sustainability message to attract talent and investors. And it needs to secure the social license to continue operations and developments throughout the coming period of the energy transition.
These big goals cannot be achieved by just upgrading our pipelines. But, in an industry that is so dependent on them, reinforced thermoplastic pipe, which is recyclable, robust and reliable, can play a key role in efficient and cost-effective oilfield facilities and will provide the backbone for the next generation of lower carbon-footprint energy developments.
About the author: Igor Azevedo is the Global Sales & Commercial Leader of Flexible Pipe Systems – Onshore, a Baker Hughes product line that provides non-metallic spoolable reinforced thermoplastic pipe for O&G and Industrial applications. Currently based in Houston, Igor joined the company in 2009 (GE, BHGE and Baker Hughes) and has had experience across a variety of countries in roles like Commercial Operations, Sales, Project Management, Product Management and P&L management. Igor is an XLP/IMPACT graduate from Baker Hughes and holds a degree in Industrial engineering from UFMG and a master’s in petroleum engineering UFRJ, both in Brazil.