October 2020

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Safety: Addressing corrosion at petrochemical plants starts with carbon

Maintaining the structural integrity of a pipeline is a significant investment of time and resources for organizations in the oil and gas industry.

Dalton, B., Thermo Fisher Scientific

Maintaining the structural integrity of a pipeline is a significant investment of time and resources for organizations in the oil and gas industry. One common challenge associated with maintenance is corrosion. According to the National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE), corrosion costs the oil and gas industry approximately $1.372 B/yr. With costs forecast to increase, the industry is increasing regulations and investments to better understand and minimize the impact of corrosion on a worksite.

The industry’s response

Material verification programs have always played a critical role in confirming a safe work environment in petrochemical plants. The American Petroleum Institute’s (API’s) Recommended Practice 578 3rd Edition—“Guidelines for a Material Verification Program (MVP) for New and Existing Assets”—expanded the rules around what should be verified. This has created a daunting task for inspection personnel, but ultimately helps the organization better understand the structural integrity of assets, which plays a key role in mitigating corrosion across the worksite.

Proper verification of the composition of metal assets validates the integrity of the material’s thermal resistance, weldability, structural integrity and carbon levels. Carbon directly impacts physical properties and the rate of corrosion. If metal composition is not measured correctly, the wrong material could be used, accelerating corrosion and leading to failures. These risks not only pose a threat to the workers at a site but can also lead to productivity loss or fines as a result of environmental infractions.

Technological hurdles to overcome

Inspection personnel and those responsible for worksite safety operate in high-stress environments and need tools to help facilitate their initiatives. When measuring carbon, inspection personnel are typically supplied with one of two technologies: Optical emission spectroscopy (OES) or laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS). Both technologies are effective, but vary drastically in functionality, which can greatly impact worker productivity, especially when considering the expansive list of assets that need to be verified under industry guidelines. Some of these key differences include:

  • Operation: OES applies electrical energy in the form of a spark generated between an electrode and a sample. This excites the atoms within a material, creating an emission spectrum that is specific to each element. LIBS use a high-energy pulsed laser to ablate a sample. This creates a plume of atomic and ionic emissions that can be analyzed. OES leaves a much larger residual mark than LIBS, which needs to be addressed once analysis is complete.
  • Setup time and analysis: LIBS technologies take less than 10 min. to set up, while OES can take upwards of 20 min.–30 min. and consists of several complex steps. Analysis time with LIBS technology takes approximately 10 sec vs. approximately 15 sec on mobile OES. While a 5-sec difference in analysis time may seem minimal, at a macro level, an inspector can save up to 52 hr/yr using LIBS.
  • Portability: Handheld LIBS easily and safely travels with a user for various tasks; whereas, mobile OES can be difficult to deploy. When factoring in the argon tank required to accompany mobile OES, users can expect an additional 40 lbs–80 lbs, which causes significant limitations to accessibility and mobility.

What does this mean for material verification?

Limitations to productivity and mobility plague the work of material verification personnel at petrochemical worksites who are often required to work in cramped spaces (e.g., crawling through a piping structure or climbing up scaffolding). Using a handheld device instead of a heavy, cumbersome instrument enables personnel to move quickly throughout the worksite, as well as decreases the physical burden inspection personnel regularly experience.

Inspection personnel need a product that promotes ease of use. Unfortunately, older technologies typically require much more training and expertise; whereas, newer tools are more approachable and leverage “point-and-shoot” technology.

Effective corrosion management starts with carbon

A better understanding of the status of carbon throughout the worksite enables inspection personnel to better address and maintain incidents of corrosion. Tools that enable swift and accurate identification mean that tasks can be done more easily and accurately, mitigating the risk of unplanned downtime to accommodate necessary maintenance and saving costs. These tools alleviate the challenges experienced by personnel, enabling them to do their jobs more efficiently while securing a safer working environment. HP

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