A Rational Approach To Pipeline Material Selection

December 2011, Vol. 238 No. 12

Krupavaram Nalli, Tebodin & Partners LLC, Sultanate of Oman

With the recent spate of material failures in the oil and gas industry around the world, the role of a material and corrosion engineer in selecting suitable material has become more complex, controversial and difficult. Further, the task had become more diverse, since now modern engineering materials offer a wide spectrum of attractive properties and viable benefits.

From the earlier years or late ’70s, the process of materials selection that had been confined exclusively to a material engineer, a metallurgist or a corrosion specialist has widened today to encompass other disciplines like process, operations, integrity, etc. Material selection is no more under a single umbrella but has become an integrated team effort and a multidisciplinary approach. The material or corrosion specialist in today’s environment has to play the role of negotiator or mediator between the conflicting interests of other peer disciplines like process, operations, concept, finance, budgeting, etc.

With this as backdrop, this article presents various stages in the material selection process and offers a rational path for the selection process toward a distinctive, focused and structured holistic approach.

What is material selection in oil and gas industry? Material selection in the oil and gas industry – by and large – is the process of short listing technically suitable material options and materials for an intended application. Further to these options, it is the process of selecting the most cost- effective material option for the specified operating life of the asset, bearing in mind the health, safety and environmental aspects and sustainable development of the asset, technical integrity and any asset operational constraints envisaged in the operating life of the asset.

What stages are involved? The stages involved in the material selection process can be outlined as material selection 1) during the concept or basic engineering stage, 2) during the detailed engineering stage, and 3) for failure prevention (lessons learned).

Concept Stage
Material selection during the concept stage basically means the investigative approach for the various available material options for the intended function and application. In this stage, a key factor for the material selection is an up-front activity taking into consideration operational flexibility, cost, availability or sourcing and, finally, the performance of the material for the intended service and application.

The material and corrosion engineer’s specialized expertise or skills become more important as the application becomes critical, such as highly sour conditions, highly corrosive and aggressive fluids, high temperatures and highly stressed environments, etc.

It is imperative at this concept stage that the material selection process becomes an interdisciplinary team approach rather an individualistic material and corrosion engineer’s choice. However, some level of material selection must be made in order to proceed with the detailed design activities or engineering phase.

The number and availability of material options in today’s industry have grown tremendously and have made the selection process more intricate than a few decades back. The trend with research and development in the materials sciences will continue to grow and may make the selection even more complex and intriguing.

It should be understood that, at the concept design stage, the selection is broad and wide. This stage defines the options available for specific application with the available family of materials like metals, non metals, composites, plastics, etc. If an innovative and cost-effective material choice is to be made from an available family of options, it is normally done at this stage.

At times, material constraints from the client or operating company or the end user may dictate the material selections as part of a contractual obligation. Sourcing, financial and cost constraints at times may also limit and obstruct the material selections except for vey critical applications where the properties and technical acceptability of the material is more assertive and outweighs the cost of the material.

Materials availability is another important criterion on the material selection which impacts the demanding project schedules for the technically suitable material options. Also, different engineering disciplines may have different and specific requirements like constructability, maintainability, etc. However, a compromise shall be reached at this stage among all the disciplines concerned to arrive at a viable economic compromise on the candidate material.

Detailed Engineering Stage
Materials selection during the detailed design stage becomes more focused and specific. The material selection process narrows down to a small group or family of materials, say: carbon steels, stainless steels, duplex stainless steels, Inconels or Incoloys, etc. In the detail design stage, it narrows down to a single material and other conditions of supply like Austenitic stainless steels, Martensitic stainless steels, cast materials, forged materials, etc.

Depending on the criticality of the application at this stage the material properties, manufacturing processes and quality requirements will be addressed to more precise levels and details. This may sometimes involve extensive material-testing programs for corrosion, high temperature, and simulated heat treatment as well as proof testing.

From the concept to detailing stage is a progressive process ranging from larger broad possibilities to screening to a specific material and supply condition.

At times, the selection activity may involve a totally new project (greenfield) or to an extension of existing project (brownfield). In the case of an existing project, it could be necessary to check and evaluate the adequacy of the current materials; it may be necessary at times to select a material with enhanced properties. The candidate material shall normally be investigated for more details in terms of cost, performance, fabricability, availability and any requirements of additional testing in the detail engineering stage.

Failure Prevention (Lessons Learned)

Material selection and the sustainability of material to prevent any failure during the life of the component is the final selection criterion in the process.

Failure is defined as an event where the material or the component did not accomplish the intended function or application. In most cases, the material failure is attributed to the selection of the wrong material for the particular application. Hence, the review and analysis of the failure is a very important aspect in the material selection process to avert any similar failures of the material in future.

The failure analysis – or the lessons learned – may not always result in better material. The analysis may, at times, study and consider the steps to reduce the impact on the factors that caused the failure. A typical example would be to introduce a chemical inhibition system into the process to mitigate corrosion of the material or to carry out a post-weld heat treatment to minimize the residual stresses in the material which has led to stress corrosion cracking failure.

An exhaustive review and study of the existing material that failed, including inadequacy checks and a review of quality levels imposed on the failed materials, is required before an alternate and different material is selected for the application.

The importance of the failure analysis cannot be overstressed in view of the spate of failures in recent times in the oil and gas industry. The results of failure analysis and study will provide valuable information to guide the material selection process and can serve as input for the recommendation in the concept and design stages of the project. It strengthens and reinforces the material selection process with sound back-up information.

Let us take a general view of material recommendations for pipelines. Some of the materials most relevant for use in pipelines in the Middle East are indicated for information and guidance in Table 1. The recommendations are general in nature and each pipeline is to be studied in detail case by case as regards operating conditions, fluid compositions, etc. before any final selections.

Also, other considerations – like the total length of the pipeline, above or below ground installation, nature of the pipeline (export line or processing line, etc.) – that are to be taken into consideration during the detailed engineering phase.

Table 1: General Material Selection For Pipelines In Oil And Gas Industry.

Notes: CA: Corrosion Allowance, CS: Carbon Steel, CRA: Corrosion Resistant Alloy and GRP: Glass Reinforced Plastics. The recommendations in Table 1 are for guidance only. Each pipeline is to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis based on operating conditions and fluid compositions.

To maintain the integrity of the asset and provide a safe, healthful working environment it is always a welcome event to have the material selection process be executed as a holistic team approach rather than an individual metallurgist’s or corrosion specialist’s choice.

Krupavaram Nalli
is lead discipline consultant – Materials & Corrosion, at Tebodin & Partner LLC, in the Sultanate of Oman and can be reached at knalli@tebodin.co.om, www.tebodin.com.