3D printing has been used in many industries for quite some time, but it’s mostly used to produce molds and models, but now thanks to new techniques it’s being used in the oil and gas industry.
Pipelines that transport corrosive oil and gas at high pressure and temperature are susceptible to leaks. The problem is that these leaks aren’t detectable in realtime and if left undetected the tiny leaks can become major ruptures. There are of course tools such as pigs, smart pigs, flow meters, pressure gauges and others that can detect the leaks, but these are inefficient. Pigs, which are metal tubes shot down pipelines to clean out sludge, take a reading at the start and end point and then engineers look at the readings and identify where a problem maybe occurring. Because this isn’t in real time there is a real danger that a rupture maybe imminent and it won’t be spotted until it’stoo late. What is needed is a method of detectingleaks in realtime and then being able to repair to them.
The first part is relatively straightforward, smart pigs can have scanning technology fitted to detect problems as they travel through the pipeline and then through a series of relays the information can be sent to the control room, but the real challenge is repairing those leaks. With many thousands of miles of pipeline, some of which is often at incredible depths, getting engineers out to the exact location of the problem and fixing it in a timely manner is a difficult and expensive task.
This is where 3D printing technology comes in. General Electric’s (GE) oil and gas division is using additive manufacturing (AM) to create pigs using 3D printing. Since each pig needs to be built for an individual pipeline, the usual development time is 12 weeks, but now with 3D prototyping this time has been reduced to just 12 days. Overthe next two years GE are investing over USD 100 million on AM and it’s hoped that in future it will lead to the rapid repairing of leaks using a technique called Cold Spray. According to Anteneh Kebbede, manager of the Coating and Surface Technologies Lab at the GE Research Center, “In addition to being able to build new parts without welding or machining, what’s particularly exciting about cold spray as an innovative, 3D process is that it affords us the opportunity to restore parts using materials that blend in and mirror the properties of the original part itself. This extends the lifespan of parts by years, or possibly by decades, ultimately providing improved customer value.”
Based on this article, Cold Spray involves spraying powder particles at extreme speeds towards metals and alloys to which they bond and build up layers. Because it doesn’t use heat the technique can be used in flammable environments and on heat-sensitive materials and because the nozzle and liquid can be quite compact, it can be usedin tight locations. This video demonstrates cold spray technology in action and how quickly it can build a 3D object.
Although much of this technology still has to be approved by the regulators the future for 3D printing in the oil and gas industries is exciting and one day preventative measures may be able to be taken before an accident occurs.