Going Deeper: Improved Technology Can Help Oil and Gas Companies Underwater Drilling Efforts

Materials Studio, Petrochemicals

oil and gas
The current oil and gas market is encouraging companies to look for other sources of crude oil. How can polymer innovation help them?
Image source: Flickr CC user Steven Straiton

The current volatility in the oil and gas market has left companies scrambling for ways to maintain their annual earnings and profit margins. Unfortunately, the challenges they’re facing don’t appear to be leaving anytime soon. Thanks to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies (OPEC) maintaining record-high production to compete with the U.S. shale boom, the price of crude oil has hit corresponding record lows. Consumers may be rejoicing over having to pay less for gasoline, but petroleum firms must make some tough decisions to remain competitive.

While thoughts immediately turn toward downsizing, that isn’t the only option for companies. For example, an estimated 300 billion barrels of oil are said to be available to us—an amount far larger than what Saudi Arabia or Venezuela has access to.1 Sounds like the perfect solution to the U.S. oil and gas industry’s woes, right? There’s only one hitch: the oil is buried deep below the ocean.

Deep sea oil drilling comes with many pitfalls. For one, it’s more complicated than onshore drilling. The equipment used in underwater drilling is exposed to conditions not experienced by onshore rigs, increasing the uncertainty and risks involved. No one wants to deal with a blowout and the ensuing environmental catastrophe. In today’s highly eco-conscious society, the oil industry needs to ensure that its reputation remains as untarnished as possible, especially in light of the negative attention directed toward fracking.

Does this mean the oil and gas industry should give up on those vastly untapped undersea oil fields? Certainly not. The opportunity is prime and recent innovations in polymer technology might make it both possible and economically feasible.

Polymer Innovation Can Aid Oil and Gas Companies’ Undersea Drilling Efforts

In recent years, at least one company has developed polymers with advantageous uses in multiple industries. One in particular—polyetheretherketone (PEEK)—is a thermoplastic that has high thermal and chemical resistance. In short, this means PEEK can replace metal components in structural applications.2 Even more important, it can withstand organic and aqueous environments. Sounds perfect for underwater drilling applications, doesn’t it?

Imagine creating an underwater pipe from this kind of polymer. It’s lighter and stronger than steel. It’s durable. It won’t corrode in salt water. All these traits combined will help minimize the risk of ruptures that put the specter of oil spills in everyone’s minds. The flexibility afforded to polymer material also makes it spoolable, meaning that project costs can be reduced.3 In a time when profit margins are a concern, any method to keep project costs down is a boon to companies.

With underwater drilling seemingly being the solution to the oil and gas industry’s woes, collaborative efforts will be required to transform such operations into ones that take advantage of current technology. Companies will need to partner with firms specializing in materials science earlier in the process, to ensure that the structures built are optimized to their full potential. More often than not, they will require a customized design due to the aqueous environment, which is subject to pressure and temperature changes.

Beyond the designs themselves, these partnerships will also need to consider the materials used. If polymers are to replace the steel so often used in pipes, then can we develop polymers even better than what is presently available? Ones that are created specifically for deep sea utility? BIOVIA Materials Studio is a modeling and simulation environment that enables researchers to visualize and predict a new material’s behavior and properties. Does your company require a polymer that can withstand high pressure? Do you need a compound that’s resistant to a particular chemical? Materials Studio allows you to screen for these traits with its simulation software, letting you select promising candidates before even the physical testing stage. By doing so, it speeds up the pace of innovation, allowing companies to meet the demands of a difficult market. Please contact us today to learn more.

  1. “Oil Producers Try to Go Deep, Get Cheap for Underwater Wells,” March 26, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-26/oil-producers-try-to-go-deep-get-cheap-for-underwater-wells
  2. “Evonik expands PEEK production in China,” November 2, 2015, http://www.plasticstoday.com/articles/evonik-expands-peek-production-china-151102?cid=nl.plas08.20151104.tst002c
  3. “Victrex building new PEEK capacity,” December 9, 2015, http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20151209/NEWS/312109998/victrex-building-new-peek-capacity

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