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Warding off corrosion on Alaska's aging pipelines a new growth industry

Jill Burke

On Tuesday, the University of Alaska-Anchorage held a grand opening for its new BP Asset Integrity and Corrosion Lab. The new facility, made possible by a $1 million gift from BP, expands the university's mechanical engineering program.

The lab's birth comes as Alaska's oil pipeline and the corrosion experts who know how to diagnose and manage it are both aging. It holds promise for both technological innovation and developing a home-grown workforce to keep pipelines in good working order for decades to come.

“Having well-trained engineers on staff that are very familiar with the fundamentals of corrosion is a great step in the right direction,” said Matt Cullin, a mechanical engineer and assistant professor at UAA, who will serve as the lab's director.

Costly corrosion

The grand opening comes one day after BP's court-ordered deadline to pay the state of Alaska $255 million for money the state lost in revenue when more than 5,000 barrels of crude oil spilled on the North Slope in 2006, forcing a pipeline shutdown.  The company’s Alaska and national reputation has been tarnished by spills, ensuing lawsuits, and criminal charges – all evidence of greater scrutiny by federal regulatory agencies. 

Corrosion-weakened pipes caused the North Slope pipeline failure. The company also had to pay a $20 million criminal judgment and a separate $25 million civil judgment in connection with the spills. When the civil judgment was ordered in May 2011, it was the largest per barrel penalty levied by the Department of Justice to date.

In the years since, BP has spent even more money on its Alaska operations at Prudhoe Bay, the nation's largest oil field. Replacing the old system that leaked and caused the spills cost upwards of $500 million. The company has tripled the amount it spends each year on corrosion prevention and maintenance – up to $120 million in 2011. It's renovated other lines and doubled its pipeline inspections to 160,000 per year, 110,000 of which specifically look for corrosion.

“BP has spent the last several years systematically strengthening safety and risk management based on lessons learned from 2006. We have made significant improvements in safety and reliability on the North Slope,” said Dawn Patience, spokesperson for BP.

The $1 million gift to UAA for an Alaska-based corrosion lab offers another investment in the long-term maintenance and management of Alaska's pipelines.

“This will dramatically increase the capability of integrity testing in Alaska -- providing results in a timely manner (and) providing students with the opportunity of hands-on research and internships in multiple industries in Alaska – not just oil and gas,” Patience said.

'Driving a Pinto' 

”Corrosion is going to be the biggest single threat to flow assurance in the next century,” according to Cullin, who likens the condition of Alaska's pipeline infrastructure to an old car. “We're driving a Pinto around.”

To keep the old car going, you could rebuild it each month to keep everything in working order. But that's not financially viable. Pipeline management, as with the car, is about striking the right balance, Cullin said.

Preventing corrosion isn't as simple as replacing a bad alternator. “Every day,” Cullin said, “corrosion is trying to outwit you.”

The trans-Alaska pipeline and the pipelines of Prudhoe Bay that feed it have been in place more than three decades, moving the oil that for decades has largely paid for Alaska's state government. New pipeline-integrity engineers will continue to be in demand.

In addition to oil and gas, corrosion experts are needed in the aviation, military, shipping, fisheries and water-wastewater industries.

Alaska's 'corrosion crime lab' 

The crown jewel of Cullin's program is a $250,000 scanning electron microscope capable of making tiny details visible to the human eye. It will be able to detect minute surface changes in sections of pipe, and also identify particles.

“I kind of think of this as the corrosion crime lab for the state of Alaska. It's kind of like CSI Sherlock Holmes style. We want to track down the root cause of the failure,” Cullin said.

Answering those mysteries could determine if a corrosion problem was due to not enough inhibitor injected into the pipeline, or to a surface film that may have prevented the inhibitor from working, or if the pipeline's main material was faulty from the start.

The exciting part for Cullin is that it will give all levels of academics the opportunity to get involved – undergraduates, graduates and faculty. The idea is to create a lab where industry-funded research projects take place, and also where state and government entities turn for new information and ideas. Through a “corrosion track” – a series of two courses broken up by field experience over the summer – students in engineering and other relevant disciplines should be able to hit the ground running after graduation, Cullin said.

Cullin expects the corrosion classes will have a lasting impact on his students, something he calls the “corrosion glasses” effect. Regardless of what discipline they enter, he'd like to see them always have an eye out for whether designs or other new ideas adequately account for corrosion control. “I absolutely feel that they will match up to anybody from any other school with their fundamental knowledge about corrosion,” he said.

In addition to cultivating a home-grown work force, there's another upside for industry: a quicker turnaround on failure analysis when something goes wrong. Instead of packing up parts and sending them to Houston, the material could head to UAA.

“It's really going to be an all-purpose facility,” Cullin said. His goal is for the lab to become self-sustainable within five years, paying for itself through private or government research projects and possibly renting out time on the new microscope, which other departments have already expressed interest in.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com