3D printing has been used in many industries for quite some time but it's mostly used to produce 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's too late. What is needed is a method of detecting links in realtime and then being able to repair them.
The first part is relatively straigthforward, smart pigs can have scanning technology fitted to detect problems as they travel through the pipeline and then through a series of relays that the information can be sent to the control room but the real challenge is repairing those leaks. With many thousands of miles of pipelines, some of which is often at incredible depths, getting engineers out to exact locations of the problem and fixing it in timely manner is a difficult and expensive task.
This is where 3D printing technology comes in handy. General Electric's (GE) oil and gas division is using additive manufacturing (AM) to create pigs using 3D printing. Some 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. Over the next two years, GE is investing over 100 million on AM and its hoped that in the 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 ordinal 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 used in 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 of 3D printing in oil and gas industries is exciting and one day preventative measures may be able to be taken before an accident occurs.