Technological developments have revolutionized deepwater drilling and production in recent years and the need for high performance, robust and dependable solutions has never been greater. This is because in the harsh environments presented by the offshore world, the requirement for equipment to operate safely and effectively while providing peace of mind, is paramount.
However, with a significant number of aging platforms and rigs still in use across the globe, can they keep up with the pace? With fire protection a critical part of onboard safety, this article looks at why innovative corrosion-free, rubber-based solutions can be the key to helping bring an aging fleet of platforms back to life, while still creating a safe working environment for all and meeting the necessary industry standards.
Pushing the limit
The exploration of offshore oil and gas has been moving to deepwater fields, requiring wells to be drilled deeper and reach further in order to provide more cost-effective and safe well completions. Adding to this is the requirement to extract more oil and gas than ever before, and exploit harsher environments in new locations around the world. In addition, there was a time when customers required products that could last 20 years – now it’s often up to 40 years.
When it comes to choosing the most suitable material to handle these challenges, rubber-based material is, not surprisingly, becoming a more popular choice due to its flexibility and durability. Compared to alternative materials, such as steel and fiberglass, rubber has a wide temperature range and exceptionally high pressure resistance. It is a diverse material that performs at every level to seal, damp and protect, and most of all, it has an extremely long lifetime.
A Question of Safety
With all this in mind, it’s no surprise that safety is a key priority for the offshore oil and gas industry, and ensuring safety onboard any production facility is absolutely vital. Critical to this is advanced fire protection systems, specifically the deluge system which, designed to protect areas where fire is likely to spread rapidly, is now commonplace on offshore facilities. While relatively simple in design and installation, its operation is essential for the safety of onboard personnel, asset protection and preventing event escalation.
So, in the offshore oil and gas sector, where the risk of rapid fire spread is greater than most, firestop solutions such as the deluge system need to provide full assurance that they will not fail to deliver on any critical firewater or utility piping installations.
However, traditional carbon steel fabricated deluge systems are prone to corrosion when carrying saltwater, which can restrict or even block flow as rust forms, reducing the effectiveness of the system. This has resulted in the industry suffering from costly shutdowns and repairs, and in the worst-case scenario, risk of failure in an emergency.
Next Generation Protection
As such, the industry has seen an increase in corrosion-free firestop alternatives that prevent such issues and give peace of mind to the offshore oil and gas sector. This next generation of fire-deluge system, which uses synthetic rubber instead of traditional materials such as rigid steel, titanium, copper nickel and fiberglass piping, has now been successfully installed and used in many regions across the globe.
By utilizing synthetic rubber, these systems are non-corroding and can withstand jet fires with a heat flux of 390kW/m2, temperatures above +2552 °F / +1400 °C and flame speeds that exceed the speed of sound. This makes it an ideal choice for use in deluge and sprinkler systems on offshore oil and gas installations, ships and other hazardous environments. Due to its flexible characteristics, this new technology can be used to partly or completely replace old systems and is an ideal solution for temporary deluge systems when high safety levels need to be maintained during modification work to existing systems.
The United States, specifically the Gulf of Mexico (GoM), has failed to benefit from this innovation, until now. Following extensive testing a recently awarded United States Coast Guard (USCG) approval means that corrosion-free, rubber-based solutions are now qualified for use.
With an estimated 3,858 active platforms and a total of 98 different companies with listed assets that utilize fire deluge systems in the area, the USCG approval of an alternative offshore piping system will allow operators working in the area to easily and quickly increase offshore safety and provide peace of mind for the entire operation.
This is because, as well as offering exceptional performance, rubber-based alternatives are extremely flexible and can be moved and reused (if temporary). Compared with rigid pipe systems, they require fewer construction drawings. Accurate measurements are reduced as the system can be designed and modified on site. Furthermore, systems are installed using no hot work (welding or sparks) that typically shuts a platform down.
The importance of innovative new rubber-based solutions gaining USCG approval is further demonstrated by the high number of aging platforms that currently reside in the GoM and may require upgrading in order to meet the new, extended lifetime of projects.
Roughly half of the regions’ oil and gas production platforms – more than 3,000 – have been operating longer than their designers intended, with roughly a third dating back to the 1970s or earlier, long before development of modern construction standards.
Worryingly, this has a significant effect on safety as equipment can severely degrade or corrode after so many years of use. This means that older structures could be more prone to accidents, or fires, and are much more dangerous for workers. Platforms, which are subjected to extreme ocean currents, corrosive salt water and frequent hurricanes, aren’t mobile and can’t simply be brought back to shore for repairs.
A Proven Solution
As a result of both customer and industry feedback, there are now piping systems available to the industry which are designed for use as deluge and sprinkler systems, especially in harsh environments. The design incorporates three core layers: the fire shield, pressure liner and inner layer. These combine to give the system high tolerance to impact, jet fire (+2552°F / +1400˚C for one hour), explosion and water hammer, as well as being lightweight, durable and easy to cut, fit and install.
Compared with a conventional carbon steel based deluge system, which requires more frequent testing and maintenance, and needs replacing at regular intervals over the platform or vessel’s lifetime, rubber deluge systems deliver a very low total life cost.
The flexible piping system offers a 30-year minimum maintenance life, and its corrosion-free performance means system testing frequency can be reduced to statutory requirements.
Passive Fire Protection
In addition to fire deluge systems, other firestop solutions are available in a series of materials and products to protect personnel, equipment, critical components and structures, and to assist emergency response activity by buying time to gain control of the fire, and evacuate the area. With proven engineering and manufacturing techniques for protection of all kind of fires, from simple cellulose, via HC- and jet fires by missile launching, the rubber materials are built-up of layers and meet protection requirements for corrosion, thermal, fire and mechanical, to protect structures from exceeding temperature limits.
It is key that any fire protection specified for use on an offshore facility provides the following:
- Stability: The structure shall fulfill its load-bearing capacity throughout the fire exposure period.
- Integrity: Partitions shall prevent spread of flames and hot fumes throughout the fire exposure period.
- Insulation: The unexposed side of partitions shall not reach surface temperature in excess of a certain level throughout the fire exposure period. The allowable/critical temperature on the surface of a component is project specific information, with typical values of max +392 °F to +752 °F / +200 °C to +400 °C.
- HSE: Low generation of smoke and non-toxic fumes.
Safety on offshore oil and gas installations is of paramount importance, and having an effective and reliable deluge and firestop system is vital to ensuring onboard safety. In the harsh offshore market, operators need the assurance of a material that delivers proven performance for their critical firewater and utility piping installations, without fail.
As new high performance and reliable solutions are developed, the onus is on manufacturers to ensure their solutions are tested and audited to meet the necessary regulations of the different offshore regions in which they operate.
However, with the high number of aging platforms and rigs currently in operation in the GoM, and the threat of critical failure looming, this is one area in particular where benefits from new technologies and innovations will help bring them back to life and ultimately reduce fire risks, potential downtime or closure.
As such, it has never been more important for leading manufacturers to ensure their products meet the highest standards, especially if they are to guarantee that offshore operators have access to the latest and most innovative solutions which will significantly improve onboard safety and provide peace of mind to all those on board.
For further information, go to www.trelleborg.com