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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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The Pipeline Tech Transforming The Oil Industry

Monitoring and maintenance of pipelines costs energy companies approximately $1.4 billion every year. But what if innovative solutions could help rein in this cost by automating monitoring processes and communicating maintenance issues through smart technology? We’re already starting to see the use of drones for pipeline monitoring purposes, but some companies are going directly to the source by creating smart solutions for pipelines. 

Smart pipelines are one of the ways the industry is tackling the issue of monitoring and maintenance. They would allow for remote tracking, monitoring, and control, to communicate any problems as soon as they occur. The Bytepipe, created by a Californian company, is expected to be ready by 2021, with a modified version in 2022. 

The idea is to integrate sensors and electronic components into pipeline casings to provide them with smart capabilities, in a market with over 14 million metric tons of demand in 2019. The technology will provide Exploration and Production companies with real-time downhole monitoring in oil and gas wells and tracking across the length of the pipeline

At present, oil and gas companies spend around $589 million on surface pipeline and facility expenses, $463 million on downhole tubing expenses, and $320 on corrosion costs. Corrosion is a plight for the oil industry, leading to pipeline fatigue and even leaks. 

A 2006 case of pipeline corrosion and leaking was devastating for BP, which, in 2011, was forced to pay a $25 million penalty over a pipeline oil leak in Alaska. The leak occurred as heavy corrosion went undetected for five days, resulting in an oil spill devastating the surrounding environment. 

Digital detection methods have come into use since the 2011 BP scandal, as energy companies realized the importance of early detection. Some methods include remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs), electrical field mapping, the acoustic emission method, and ultrasonic testing. However, many companies still rely on human interaction, such as divers manually taking photos, to monitor pipelines. Additionally, many of these technologies have limitations including human involvement in cleaning devices and data monitoring, as well as the vulnerability of the machinery working in harsh conditions. 

Related: U.S. Renewable Energy Installations Break Records Despite Pandemic

Improvements in automated image processing techniques, using machine-learning algorithms, is expected to improve the monitoring and communication of pipeline issues. This could be coupled with computer vision (CV), an AI-based image-processing technique, to better identify pipeline corrosion. Both technologies rely on big data to identify and respond to the issues. 

In addition, companies are slowly starting to introduce innovative coatings for steel pipelines, which typically corrode at a rapid rate in harsh conditions. Bill Hedges, BP’s chief engineer for upstream materials explained, “We can see corrosion rates of 2mm a year”. And simply replacing corroded pipelines is a major expense to companies due to the use of materials, transportation costs, and the halt in oil production. Estimates say costs linked with corrosion in the energy industry could be as high as $2 trillion globally each year. 

BP-ICAM has announced research into the development of smart coatings with self-reporting abilities, which would communicate with the user if it was damaged. The technology relies on microcapsules, which release a different colored liquid when damaged, allowing the user to locate the source of the problem.  

The task now is to strike the balance with creating a smart coating for pipelines that will withstand harsh weather or undersea conditions but will not cause added harm to the environment. 

Going forward, the use of smart pipeline technology, big data in monitoring practices, and corrosion-resistant coatings would not only save the energy industry billions but could prevent environmental disaster and enhance safety practices in oil and gas.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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