As low oil prices and high operating costs continue to make life difficult for oil and gas operators, the ongoing mission to boost production efficiency and limit unplanned maintenance to a minimum has gone from good business practice to a survival imperative as profit margins become increasingly squeezed, especially in high-cost mature offshore regions.

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With many operators working with ageing offshore infrastructure and lacking the CAPEX budgets for significant upgrades, corrosion management is a vital part of maintaining asset availability and sustaining viable operations in a low oil price environment. On the UK Continental Shelf, plant failure and unplanned maintenance account for nearly half of overall efficiency losses.

Corrosion is a complex challenge for a range of heavy industries, and the offshore environment is among the most hostile and corrosive on Earth. Oxifree Metal Protection, an international company founded in 2009 to tackle what it calls the “global corrosion epidemic”, was one of the hundreds of companies exhibiting at this year’s OTC in Houston, Texas to promote its proprietary Oxifree TM198 thermoplastic coating, which is sprayed onto metallic components to protect them from corrosion.

The company is also showing off new products such as Oxitape, which allows TM198 to operate in even more rugged offshore environments, and the Polymelt repair gun, a handheld tool used to quickly reapply areas of coating that may have been damaged or removed to inspect the underlying surface.

We caught up with Oxifree managing director Ed Hall at OTC 2016 to get his thoughts on the conference and the current state-of-play in offshore anti-corrosion technologies.

Chris Lo: You’ve been in Houston for the Offshore Technology Conference – what value can you get from meeting your counterparts in the industry and exchanging thoughts on corrosion-related issues?

Ed Hall: I think there’s a big element of value there, depending on the show. The value for us with OTC is that we have some of our counterparts specifically from the corrosion industry here, but we also have a lot of the service providers and end users that are present at this type of event. So it actually gives us quite a wide reach as to who we might be able to talk to, and that obviously has great value – instead of having to go round and knock on doors, we have people coming to us, not under pressure or duress but through their own choice. I think that really removes barriers and makes it easier to build a quicker rapport and start delivering the message as to what we can do for them.

It’s really interesting at the Offshore Technology Conference – with the global oil and gas slump at the moment, there’s still a big interest in maintaining health and safety, and a big interest in promoting productivity and efficiency going forward. You can see that at this show in the quality of the people and the questions that are being posed by the delegates who are present.

CL: What are your plans at this particular OTC?

EH: We have the Oxitape launch, and we’re also going to be demonstrating our new Polymelt repair gun, which is a little handheld unit that’s used for doing spot repairs and touch-ups during maintenance routines. It’s also useful if the client wants to do a visual inspection – they can cut and remove our material because it doesn’t adhere to the surface, but the question always comes up: if I cut the piece off, do I then have to call out a service provider to come and fit it back on for us? Now we’ve got the solution, where they can have the small gun on hand, they can be trained in how to use it, and just use it to fill in areas where they’ve cut the material away to do a visual inspection of the metal surface. I think it will be a very useful, small, good value tool that will help facilitate the end client using our product more, I believe.

CL: Your company has described corrosion as a global epidemic. Could you summarise the ways in which corrosion impacts offshore oil and gas operations?

EH: The main thing for oil and gas operators, of course, is efficiency and safety. They need to be productive as much of the time as they possibly can, and a lot of the assets are ageing considerably. The big issue has been that corrosion causes such a large number of issues that there are shutdowns as a result of corrosion and maintenance-related issues. What we’re seeing, certainly in the downturn, is that companies are focusing much more now on making an investment in finding the right technologies to be able to extend [asset] life, improve productivity and reduce overall costs of operation.

CL: How has the industry’s approach to counteracting corrosion evolved over the decades?

EH: It’s very interesting, actually. I think the trend has started to move a little bit. Historically there have been various solutions that have been certified and are part of the specifications for many operators in terms of maintenance. These technologies can actually often be very old, and could quite likely have been surpassed in performance, but they’re still used widely because they are part of standards. I think, historically, that’s actually formed quite a big barrier to new products, new technologies, being brought to the market. There’s a long gestation period for bringing new technologies to the market and getting them approved for use.

What we’re seeing now is that the market has changed that stance slightly, and they recognise that perhaps some of the standards are a little bit outdated in relation to some of the new technologies and how they work, and they’re actually looking at working with manufacturers of corrosion control solutions to come up with new ways of testing and certifying products quicker and getting them implemented quicker, so they can start seeing the advantages.

CL: Do different types of marine environment – subsea, deepwater, shallow water, salt content and so on – require different anti-corrosion approaches?

EH: Absolutely. I can only really comment on the topside applications – the reason for that is a subsea environment, while it can be corrosive, it’s also quite inert in its changeability, whereas in a topside environment, there are so many different factors to be considered. Temperature fluctuations, humidity, salt content – so for example, in the Middle East, the salt content is considerably higher in the water, and of course during seasons when it’s humid, you have particles of salt suspended in the humidity. That makes it an incredibly corrosive environment. The Gulf of Mexico has less salinity, but still a high salt content and a lot of volatility in the weather and therefore a lot of wave splashing and so on. And of course, it’s humid as well.

So various techniques need to be used, depending on the environment. In the Middle East, you might not have adverse weather conditions that would cause a hurricane or something like that, so the mechanical resistance of the material might be less solid than that used in the North Sea, but of course you’ve got the higher salt content, so you’ve got to make sure that whatever solution you’re using has a high resistance to salinity. And then of course, the Gulf of Mexico is a bit of a mix of the two – it’s got the harsh weather conditions, as well as the humidity and salt.

CL: Oxifree is now launching Oxitape, a new product designed to be used in conjunction with your flagship anti-corrosion coating, Oxifree TM198. How does this new product improve the service you offer to offshore operators?

EH: It broadens the applications that are relevant to Oxifree TM198. Because the material is a removable coating, there are environments that are so harsh or prone to damage that it would also cause issues for the longevity of our coating. The Oxitape facilitates supplying the TM198 in environments where we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do so.

An example of that is the ‘splash zone’ [the area immediately above and below the mean water level]. The splash zone is a notoriously difficult area to combat corrosion. In some ways it’s out of sight and out of mind because it’s below the deck, so you tend to find that it gets inspected, but issues are not necessarily identified as quickly as they might be. And also, just because of the nature of that environment, it is incredibly difficult to protect from corrosion. We believe our solution, combining TM198 and Oxitape, will give [operators] the corrosion protection they’re looking for, and we will be able to provide mechanical protection to the coating over the long term from things like wave slam and impact from floating debris.

CL: Looking to the future, how would you like to see anti-corrosion technologies improve or innovate in the coming years? Do you think we will see entirely new disruptive technologies enter the market, or is it more likely that existing technologies will be refined and iterated on?

EH: I think in some ways, it’s a combination of the two. Technology that enables the actual base materials to be used – whether it be fibreglass or steel or carbon fibre, or whatever it might be – there are technologies and materials that can be used that are less prone to corrosion. But their nature and performance is less known, and the cost of implementation is prohibitive. A lot of the existing infrastructure is not necessarily sympathetic to being combined with other types of materials for various reasons, whether it be galvanic corrosion or structural safety.

I think until there’s an opportunity for the construction to be less reliant on, for example, carbon steel, then we need to be looking at what other ancillary technologies can work in conjunction with that carbon steel. So I believe coatings have a very long and broad future, and especially in maintaining the process equipment that’s out there, which still to this day is being manufactured and installed in carbon steel rather than more exotic materials.

In terms of disruptive technology, I guess the disruptive technology would be the base materials rather than coatings themselves. It depends on the application, but there will always need to be connections because of the vast scale of these structures. And those connections are always the most prone to corrosion. Because of the fact that they need to remain serviceable – you need to be able to undo a nut and bolt, or operate a valve, or whatever it might be – there will always be a place for an unusual coating system that allows preservation of that connection, while still maintaining removability so you can access the bolt and make sure you can re-torque the bolt without having a huge task on your hands. That’s where technologies like ours really can change the efficiency in the marketplace.