Coatings designed for the energy sector have a uniquely difficult and delicate balance to strike. On the one hand, they must be robust enough to meet the demands of their intended job and achieve it under some of the most challenging of conditions, while on the other, conform to stringent environmental, health and safety and performance criteria.
Inevitably, the need to achieve this acts as a major driver on R&D investment among coatings manufacturers. For some, however, notably small- to medium-sized companies, these recurring demands are often not easily met, particularly not now. Nevertheless, despite the vagaries of the wider economy, the market appears surprisingly buoyant, particularly for those product applications intended for energy sector end-users.
The recent Frost & Sullivan European Protective Coatings Market report predicts a 2015 value approaching €945m – a rise of nearly 8% on 2008 – and it is clear that the power generation, oil and gas industries are leading the way.
Along with infrastructure and civil engineering, these segments of the coatings market are, it seems, growing markedly faster than the water, manufacturing or construction sectors.
It is a trend that independent health and safety consultant Richard Lightman has also seen developing. "There's a lot of interest in coatings at the moment," Lightman says.
"It was the 20th anniversary of Piper Alpha in 2008, so fire protection is still high on the list for the energy sector as a whole, but each segment also has its own focus.
"Pipe coatings have been pretty big in oil and gas this year, for instance – there's been some interesting stuff coming along, especially in insulation and corrosion protection. On the power side, ash abrasion and scrubber coatings are what I've been hearing most about and the upsurge of wind generation has been having its own effect too."
Fire protective coating
The potential severity of fire – the extreme high temperatures and the speed at which they are reached, along with the concomitant hazards of explosion and structural collapse – makes particular demands on fire protection coatings intended for the energy sector.
In addition, the complex site electrical infrastructure combined with the ongoing demands of routine maintenance often conspire to further exacerbate the potential danger that fires at power plants, offshore platforms or refineries can pose.
Although each type of facility inevitably presents its own specific challenges, intumescent coatings and the like remain an essential element in the 'prevention, resistance, response' of the fire protection hierarchy – and the continuing relevance across the whole sector.
Consequently, the market is well served by an effective "who's who" of coating manufacturers, including names such as Akzo Nobel/ International Protective Coatings, Ameron, Donelli, MCL Unitex, Norisol, PFP Systems and Sigma.
For the oil and gas industry specifically, much of the focus that Lightman describes – and the direction of coating technology development – reflects the needs of the sector's exploration venues. Offshore, the continuing move to greater depths and the need for effective insulation have been the two main influences in driving moves in subsea coating, while on land, the industry's burgeoning trend towards exploring increasingly remote areas has prioritised pipeline
Accordingly, developments such as Bredero Shaw's thermal insulation for bonded single pipes, and the new Stopaq / BASF poly-isobutene coating have arisen for deepwater subsea. These come alongside protective, diamond-like carbon inner layers from SouthWest Research and fusion-bonded epoxy (FBE) systems from Akzo Nobel and Dow Coating.
Such FBE technologies highlight some of the most pressing problems faced by the industry and the efforts being made by coating manufacturers to overcome them.
As reserves have become ever more difficult to identify in the first place – and equally awkward to exploit – oil and gas companies have found themselves forced to drill deeper and employ pipelines that will allow products to be transported at higher temperatures and greater pressures.
The challenge faced by the likes of Akzo Nobel in meeting the increased performance specifications that this necessarily mandates lies in formulating FBE coating materials that have a sufficiently high glass transition (Tg) temperature to maintain their integrity under these conditions.
By developing its Resicoat range around purpose-designed polymers and in a variety of Tg levels, it seems it is one that Akzo Nobel has been successfully able to meet.