Protecting pipelines — both inside and out
Thursday, December 08, 2016
Consider that there are about 2.6 million miles of pipeline that crisscross the United States. With that number of miles, the safety of pipelines is admirable.
Pipelines go underground, over the ground and underwater. They serve as superhighways for transporting liquid and gas from one place to another. For transporting liquids there is no safer way to move from point A to point B. Railroads are safer than trucks for transporting liquids, but pipelines are safer than either.
But people still don't trust pipelines. Protesters against the Dakota Access Pipeline have been in the news daily — even after their recent victory in stopping construction. At the same time, TransCanada — owner of the Keystone XL pipeline — is suing the United States government for its refusal to grant them a permit for the United States portion of the pipeline.
One reason for concern is that roughly half the pipelines across the U.S. are more than 50 years old, and some are on the verge of failing at any moment. Jim Feather, vice president of NACE International, the global corrosion trade organization, told North American Oil & Gas Pipelines, "Protecting assets starts with deliberate, carefully considered and planned corrosion control and corrosion management. This must come from the top down."
Thankfully, the energy industry has plenty of technology at their disposal to inspect and repair pipelines.
The United Kingdom has recently introduced robotics to check and repair the insides of large diameter pipes. They search the interior of pipes for cracks, check the integrity of stress points and joints that are the most vulnerable to leaks. When the robot finds a leak, it injects sealants to stop them. Using a robot in large diameter pipes is cheaper and faster than digging to fix the leak.
There are also several new coating materials that have completed testing and are for sale now or will be soon. One such advancement is polymer aerogels. Aerogels are applied in thin layers and are lighter and stronger than many materials.
Another technology is the use of graphene-infused polymers. The material is stronger and tougher than untreated pipes, and it features increased permeation resistance and improved fatigue performance compared to steel pipes.
There are also many external pipeline coatings in use today, and they include:
- Fusion-bonded epoxy (FBE)
- Coal tar enamel
- Spray-applied liquid coatings
- Two- and three-layer polyolefin coatings
At times, coatings themselves get an abrasion-resistant overlay (ARO). This is especially true for portions of pipelines that when pipes are laid using directional drilling — this technology is especially useful at river and road crossing.
In addition, many pipes have internal coatings that are usually either a liquid epoxy or an FBE system. These internal coatings help resist corrosion and enhance the flow attributes of oil and natural gas that travel in pipelines.
With oil and gas prices falling, some pipeline companies may consider cutting their inspection and repair spending. This is a bad idea, as the cost of a significant preventable breach in a pipeline will cost the pipeline company a lot more with cleanup and fines.
"When a pipeline fails, there are numerous costs to society, the environment and the owners of the pipeline," Feather says. "Financially, the cost of corrosion is astronomical, more than $9 billion annually in the U.S. alone. Ensuring a proper design and installation of pipelines as well as developing, implementing, and maintaining a proper corrosion control plan can ensure safety, protect the environment and provide a high return on investment to the pipeline owner."
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