Extreme Challenges: The New Normal in Oil and Gas could be Your Next Opportunity for Adjacent Technologies

By Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., Nerac Analyst

Originally Published July 23, 2014

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Adjacent Technologies


Adjacent Technologies

Jules Verne captivated the imaginations of generations of readers describing the adventures of three explorers who dared to face the unknown in “A journey to the center of the earth.” Today, the need to identify and develop more sources of fossil fuel energy propels modern day explorers in the oil and gas industry to push the envelope of drilling environments. Drilling in Oklahoma is replaced with drilling in the Arctic. On-shore becomes off-shore, off-shore is now far off-shore.

Innovation managers, material scientists and engineers who wish to understand these extreme environments and the challenges traditional materials face should look at their innovation pipelines and consider the opportunity. “Could my material or system improve operations under these extreme conditions?”

Arctic Drilling

This region is subject to severe temperatures. It is free of ice for only a third of a year and brutally cold the rest of the time with a sobering annual average temperature of -4°C. Temperatures at these latitudes can plunge to a lethal -50°C with an ice thickness up to 1.7 meters. In the Arctic, it may be daylight 24 hours in the summer but the winters offer 24 hours of night.

Imagine what challenges await when drilling occurs on a platform at sea, instead of drilling on-shore in this environment. Weather prediction capabilities are limited as stations are few and far between. Fishermen navigating the Arctic waters understand that severe storms can pop up with little notice. Ice flows and pack ice can apply overwhelming force on rig operation.

Safety is a challenge under arctic conditions. Rig evacuation by lifeboat is not an option when the sea is covered in ice and snow. Environmental issues arising from something such as an oil spill cannot be met with the same protocol as it would in the Gulf of Mexico.

But Wait, There’s More….

It may be ultra-cold on the surface but can reach 200°C downhole, temperatures Jules Verne could not have imagined. In addition, the surrounding rock and drilling conditions mean that anything sent down the well must be prepared to withstand significant vibrations and shock including the possibility of an earthquake.

Equipment Limitations/Material Failures

Equipment used must be able to operate effectively under conditions ranging from room temperature in the factory, to -50°C at the drilling site, and 200°C in the bowels of the earth. Compound this challenge with the extreme corrosive environment which includes the presence of hydrogen sulfide.

Low carbon steel is only capable of handling -25°C before brittle tolerance is exceeded. Special stainless steel can handle very low temperatures but the application and other conditions such as corrosive environment limit some uses. Bolts that couple parts together must be chosen carefully to handle the temperature extremes as well as vibration. The ubiquitous plastic knobs and fan blades, rubber seals, gaskets, and other flexible components, lubricating agents to minimize metal-metal friction, and drilling fluids are examples of materials which change their properties under extreme cold and where alternatives need to be found or reengineered to adapt to the Arctic environment above and below ground.

For systems that still must flow, or electronics, such as sensors and other instrumentation that must be sent down a well, encasement or packaging is necessary to allow localized modulation of temperature and minimize vibration impacts. For example, maximum operating conditions for electronics is between 85 and 125°C. Putting something down a well that will encounter temperatures at or above its maximum range is pure folly. When operating at the ends of the earth, a part that fails could shut down operations costing tens of thousands of dollars an hour of down time to extract and replace the part.

Adjacent Technologies can Play a Role

Today researchers are beginning to explore the interface between diverse advanced technology fields and the extreme situations encountered in oil and gas drilling and finding a significant fit. Some fields are making inroads while others are at the cusp. Developing new, innovative solutions outside of the traditional oil and gas field will be critical for solving the challenges involved with artic drilling.

  • MEMS: With space and power at a premium, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) are finding their way into oil and gas drilling technology. They have the potential for high temperature stability and shock and vibration resistance. These include pressure sensors, gyro sensors and thermistors and others. The sensor developer, Measurement Specialties, recently announced that they have developed a MEMS based accelerometer that can operate between -55°C and 170°C opening the door for extreme temperature MEMS applications.
  • “Smart” clothing: Safety for workers in the harsh environments can mean the difference between life and death. Numb fingers may lose the dexterity needed to correctly adjust a piece of equipment leading to operational delays. SINTEF, a Norwegian-based research organization, is developing smart clothing for rig workers using integrated sensor technologies to monitor conditions of workers while operating in these extreme environments. Wireless communication of these sensors to a monitoring station will help in the decision making of when to change out workers to keep the operations running efficiently and safely.
  • Nano-materials: Nano-materials represent significant enablers for advances in materials used in harsh environments due to their lightness, potential corrosion resistance and mechanical strength beyond their use in device miniaturization. The ability to self-assemble and self-heal may offer some unique solutions to materials issues being dealt with in harsh environments today. An innovative new nanocomposite-based technology that utilizes a high density infrared (HDIR) arc lamp as a fusion cladding process has been developed by Abakan, and advanced coatings company. This technology offers an improvement in corrosion resistance and better bonding properties to the steel surface and claimed to be applied at a significantly faster rate than traditional cladding processes. This spring the technology was awarded the oil and gas pipeline industry guild’s “Subsea Pipeline Technology of the Year” for their cladding process.
  • Extreme Purity Materials: Reducing the impurity level in materials to extreme levels is known to result in ultra uniform physical properties. Manufacturers are utilizing these high purity materials to greatly enhance performance. Federal Mogul Corporation has tapped into ultra-high purity alumina to enhance performance of their spark plugs. Normal spark plug insulators are generally 95% purity alumina. But using ultra-high purity alumina (greater than 99%) they are able to achieve superior resistance to high-voltage breakdown and decrease the size of the insulator.

Looking Outside Your Door

Revolutionary advances have come when a researcher or company asks “Where else can our invention solve problems?” The new normal for the oil and gas industry in drilling for future energy needs better, cheaper, faster, safer, AND more extreme. Is your technology up to a journey to the center of the earth?

If you are looking to identify new markets for your current pipeline of innovation, the Nerac technology team can help. We work with clients in a wide range of industries to help them understand potential markets, their technology needs and how to expand their technologies into these markets.

About the Analyst

Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D.

Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., advises companies on technology, patents, innovation and disruptive technology. She has 20 plus years of experience as a thought leader and analyst with broad technical knowledge in chemistry, materials and chemical engineering.

Academic Credentials

  • Post Doctoral Fellow, Chemical Engineering Department, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • Ph.D., Chemistry, University of California Los Angeles
  • M.S., Chemistry/Physics, Georgetown University

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