Researchers with the University of Manchester (Manchester, United Kingdom) are joining forces with oil and gas company BP (London, United Kingdom) and several other academic institutions on a major project to investigate surface degradation processes such as corrosion.
“Although there have been impressive strides in the empirical understanding of corrosion, many of the underpinning assumptions and industrial practices date back decades,” says Philip Withers, a University of Manchester professor and principal investigator on the project. In embarking upon the multiphase project, Withers says the goal is to study the fundamentals of corrosion.
“BP has brought together some of the world’s top experts to look at what's important to them,” Withers says. “Corrosion costs over $2 trillion per year and leads to all sorts of unexpected failures. This was identified as one of the most important issues, and one of the issues where science could have one of the bigger impacts.”
Studying Corrosion’s Origins
Traditionally, Withers says, researchers tend to study corrosion once it is well developed. In response, much of current research is developed on the premise of understanding and creating laws that explain when the corrosion becomes critical. However, this latest project is focused on the beginning of the corrosion process, rather than the middle to end.
Their exploration will essentially consist of two phases. The first phase, slated to take place over the next two years, involves studying the nucleation, growth, and breakdown of oilfield pipeline scales.
“The oil industry has a lot of carbon steel pipelines, and they all generate scales at different environments,” says Brian Connolly, a NACE International member and University of Manchester engineering professor helping to lead the project. “Some of these scales are protective, some aren’t, and they don’t really have any idea why. But once you get a nonprotective scale, you get pitting very easy, which can transition to cracking.”
In the first phase, researchers are planning to study the physio-chemical mechanisms underlying corrosion-scale formation and breakdown in both sweet (carbon dioxide [CO2]) and sour (hydrogen sulfide [H2S]) environments.
“The main goal of the scale formation work is to determine where a scale nucleates on the metal surface and how this may determine whether the produced scale will be protective or not,” Connolly explains. “The main goal of the scale growth and breakdown work is then to determine how the development and nature of the corrosion scale affect the breakdown of the scale leading to the initiation and propagation of localized corrosion in the carbon steel pipe.”
Their work will consist of advanced computer modeling, in situ imaging, high-resolution microscopy at the atomic level, and an analysis of 20 years of past data from BP on pipeline corrosion and failures to provide further insight on why certain scales are protective and certain scales are not.
“We’re using new and fancy modeling to get an idea of why you get certain chemistries within the pipelines, whether you get a protective scale or nonprotective scale,” Connolly says. “If we know that, then we can look at the environments within the different oilfields and see what’s coming and have a better understanding of how we can engineer new inhibitors to develop a better protective scale.”
After acquiring better knowledge of when these protective and nonprotective scales form, phase two of the research is aimed at developing and testing the inhibitors.
“If we watch these scales develop and understand what causes some to be protective and some not to be, then we can go into stage two and engineer new inhibitor systems,” Connolly says. “What we would do, we would probably work with BP and their supply chain. We could possibly go to the inhibitor companies and say, ‘This is what we understand. Do you want to work with us [and BP] on developing new systems?’ as far as the inhibitor packages.”
Meanwhile, a potential third phase could focus on the development of smart coatings systems to address wear problems in internal combustion engines, Connolly and Withers say. Building upon knowledge from earlier phases, these engine coatings would be designed to be much more stable and even have the ability to self-repair themselves. However, this phase is likely at least four years away.
“The biggest problems within BP come in oil and gas production, but they also have a very big lubricants business,” Connolly says. “We wanted to use this bid to look at both. It seems like a big challenge for us to link those two, but the surface techniques are very similar.”
Partners from Industry, Five Schools
The work brings together researchers from the two lead partners along with Imperial College London (London, United Kingdom) and the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, United Kingdom). These groups have been collaborating on corrosion research for more than five years at BP’s International Centre for Advanced Materials (BP-ICAM), located at Manchester.
“The ICAM center gives us the ability to interact directly with people in BP,” Connolly says. “It gives us so much more insight because we can talk directly to industry. When we develop our experimental plans, we say, ‘This is what we have in mind, does this meet the business need?’ It also gives us a better idea of why failures occur in most systems. I haven’t seen this type of industrial and academic interaction at such a high scale anywhere else.”
In this project, new expertise will also be provided by the University of Edinburgh (Edinburgh, United Kingdom) on how high pressure can affect the behavior of interfaces, and by the University of Leeds (Leeds, United Kingdom) on tribocorrosion, which is a material degradation process due to the combined effect of corrosion and wear.
“What we're doing is using new techniques to really look at the basis of where corrosion begins,” Withers explains. “Why does it occur in some places and not in others? What causes a film to develop? What makes that film unstable? By doing that, we'll be able to develop new alloys and new coatings that lead to longer lives.”
Background on the Program
The £5,000,000 project, “Preventing Surface Degradation in Demanding Environments,” is being jointly funded by BP and the U.K. government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) (Swindon, United Kingdom). EPSRC’s funding of the program is part of its prosperity partnerships initiative, which seeks to support existing, strategic, research-based collaborations between business and universities.
“Without BP leadership saying we’d like to put a proposal in, universities would never be able to get this award,” Connolly says. “The award has to have both an academic and an industrial lead.”
The initiative is part of a wider industrial strategy fund from the U.K. government, which is currently supporting 10 successful partnerships involving 17 universities and over 30 industrial partners.
“BP has identified surface degradation as a high priority area for future research, so we are delighted to have been awarded funding by the EPSRC to address the problems of corrosion and wear in one large collaborative project,” says Angelo Amorelli, BP’s technology vice president of group research. “We hope to extend the safe operational lifetimes of current materials and develop new materials, which will ultimately be of great benefit to multiple industrial sectors.”
Source: The University of Manchester, www.manchester.ac.uk. Contact Brian Connolly, The University of Manchester—Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.