Fibreglass: it’s in the pipeline

Fibreglass as the material of choice for oil and gas pipes? That day may seem to be some way off but, as Lawrence Moore of Future Pipe tells Phil Desmond, both market demand and new product development indicate a growing role for fibreglass in the hydrocarbon business.

photo_egypt-loMuch printer ink has been used up in recent years discussing the role and future of pipes in oil and gas production and distribution: strength, size and corrosion resistance are only a few of the issues that are being addressed as demand grows. So far, however, fibreglass, which, arguably, offers a number of advantages over traditional materials, has had only a modest influence on the use of pipes by the industry.

This influence may soon grow, at least if Future Pipe has anything to do with it. Future Pipe Industries describes itself as the global leader in the large diameter fibreglass pipe industry, developing, manufacturing and supplying pipe systems to a broad range of markets around the world, among them oil and gas and petrochemicals.

So what has made fibreglass viable in this context? Lawrence Moore, director oil & gas for the Future Pipe Industries Group, can cite a number of breakthroughs but highlights one in particular. As he says, “Among such breakthroughs one would have to include the production of pipe of a diameter of four metres, so large as to be useful not only as pipe, but as a utility tunnel in which all variety of infrastructure components can be grouped and housed, such as utility lines, fibre optic cables and smaller pipelines.” There are other recent developments, of course, including large diameter high pressure pipe, spoolable small diameter pipe, and extensions in downhole products such as casing and tubing.

This growing role for fibreglass is reflected in the company’s Middle East product line, which includes: Fiberstrong glass reinforced polyester pipe; Fiberstrong glass reinforced vinylester pipe; Wavistrong glass reinforced epoxy pip; Yellow Box high pressure line pipe; polyvinyl chloride pipe; polyethylene pipe; concrete pipe; fibre cement pipe; and glass reinforced tanks up to 4000mm diameter.

To date the majority of Future Pipe’s oil and gas business in the Middle East has been for its Wavistrong product line, a line that ranges in size from 50mm through 1.8 metres in diameter and handles pressures up to 35 bar. Now, however, the company is introducing its Yellow Box high pressure threaded connection product line into the region. “This line provides line pipe from 50 mm through 750 mm in maximum pressures that range from 85 bar for the largest sizes to 240 bar for the smallest,” says Moore. The Red Box line of down-hole tubing and casing products is another recent introduction and one that underlines one of the benefits of fibreglass. “The oil and gas industry by necessity handles a great deal of brine water, all of which is exceedingly aggressive toward steel,” explains Moore.

Indeed, the company’s promotional literature refers to the 'corrosive and demanding' conditions that products like Wavistrong have to deal with. What sort of threats would this encompass? “On the lesser end,” says Moore, “applications include the simple transport of salt water, which, commonplace as it might be, corrodes to destruct a steel pipe in a matter of one to three years.” He adds, “Examples of more severe applications would include handling hydrochloric acid in a downhole disposal system where operating temperatures are as high as 115°C.”

Such extremes are one of the factors that can limit the use of fibreglass, he admits. While fibreglass material withstands any encountered low temperatures without consequence, on occasion, and particularly in the oil and gas sector, high temperatures disallow its use. He explains, “With some exceptions, 100°C is the limiting operating temperature for most fibreglass products, a limitation that reflects the capacity of the resin component of the composite.”

But this limitation — which is in any case being addressed — should not diminish the advantages of the material — and Moore can list quite a number. “The major advantage of fibreglass pipe is its inherent, very complete resistance to chemical attack and corrosion,” he says. “Further advantages, particularly concerning large diameter pipe, include the joint weight. The pipe weight is so much less than that of equivalent steel pipe that all the handling and construction equipment required for its deployment can be of a far lesser capacity — and consequently lesser expense — than that otherwise required.” And of course connecting fibreglass pipe requires no welding. A wide variety of easily deployed couplings are utilised or joint connections are laminated and joined at site with hand-layup overwrap windings. “Thus,” says Moore, “the welding and welding equipment are eliminated, which includes the costly X-ray inspection process required of welded steel connections.”

And, as we have suggested, the heat restriction may not remain a hurdle for very long if the company’s research efforts have anything to do with it. “Among the research and development programmes we are pursuing is the development of high temperature resin systems, a programme to make a stronger large diameter restrained joint connection, and the development of a system for ‘hot tap’ installations of branch lines,” Moore explains.

But even R and D is of little use if customers’ day-to-day needs aren’t considered, and to this end, Future Pipe has a complete engineering services company called ENOIA, which provides contracted engineering services to customers directly and provides services within the Future Pipe Industries Group as well. “With the assistance of ENOIA, and a technically oriented sales group generally, we are constantly updating and identifying where we can help our customers as their projects and requirements develop,” Moore says.

It’s just as well. The global fibreglass pipe market is forecasted to keep growing and if it does it will probably become more competitive. Moore is aware that it’s still early days, but he is clearly convinced of the potential of the market. As he explains, “There are two elements to the growth in the global fibreglass market: the pipe market itself is growing as the world economy grows, and the recognition of fibreglass as a preferable material to steel in numerous applications is growing within that pipe market.”

Statistics still favour traditional materials — for now. Currently fibreglass has so far penetrated only 5.6 per cent of the global pipe market. But that won’t remain the case for long. For the future, Moore is clear on what the market and the material are capable of offering. As he says, “34 per cent of that market is fully and beneficially addressable by fibreglass”.


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