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Four years ago, oil and gas exploration and production companies were at their lowest point as the industry collapsed with the steady lowering of oil prices. Digging deeper into their toolbox of resources, several in the upstream, midstream and downstream survived by figuring creative ways to cope as well as adopting new technologies. Their resilience paid off. In 2018, global oil demand reached its highest ever levels at 100 million barrels a day. Through innovative technologies that reduce costs and boost productivity, the U.S. is poised to surpass Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's leading oil producer, hitting oil production highs of over 12 million barrels a day in February of this year. World Oil predicts 7.7% and 8.3% increases in drilling and footage in the Gulf of Mexico, respectively. Similarly, analyst firm Westwood says that after four years of decline, exploration in the Gulf is expected to go up by 30% in 2019. Key projects from oil and gas majors support this growth; Shell has announced its Appomattox from a Jurassic reservoir, BP says it will focus on the area with its Atlantis phase 3, and Chevron has committed to its ultra-high pressure Anchor project.
Contributing to the industry becoming more safe, efficient and environmentally sound, technological advances came in various forms: operational with hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling; digital with sensor data collection and production modeling; and procedural with safety drones and sealing solutions to handle extreme temperatures and pressures as well as prevent equipment failure and leakage. According to Research and Markets, the global market for seals in oil and gas is on the rise, estimated to be a $5.7 billion industry in 2018 and $6.4 billion by 2023.
What trends are driving seal use in oil and gas exploration? And what aspects are becoming more important as a result?
Saint-Gobain Seals’ District Sales Manager Jake Lester opens the doors to the company’s Houston, Texas, office, and shares his role in supporting local and international oil and gas customers with sealing solutions for their various challenging applications.
Lester, who first started at Saint-Gobain Seals as an application engineer five years ago, is in sales today and is immersed in the industry, assessing client requirements, helping in the design process, and ensuring they have everything they need from first contact to prototype, testing, on-time delivery, installation, and results. He says he is seeing growth in four key areas.
- LNG – “LNG production and transfer is increasing in the U.S. Natural gas in its liquified form is contributing to a major hike in production and transfer as a cryogenic application,” says Lester. “We are seeing a serious increase in LNG, with companies building brand new jetties on shore to accommodate more ships on the coast of Texas and Louisiana where a lot of that activity is happening.” Statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) support that LNG export capacity is expected to double by the end of 2019. And other types of LNG projects like floating storage and regasification are expected to rise.
- Surface Production – “We are seeing more work in this realm versus subsea,” says Lester. “But the term ‘surface production’ can be misleading because it can include very shallow projects to those that are down to 500 feet that are still considered topside or onshore.” Growth in surface production—with reworks on existing wells that were previously shut in—are likely being explored as they become more economically viable to optimize for performance.
- Deepwater Exploration – there is still a push to go farther to find new reserves—with conditions coming down from majors for new projects requiring higher temperatures and pressures—as this too is becoming more economical, says Lester. Rystad Energy supports that after years of limited deepwater exploration and production, 2019 is expected to see a resurgence. The research firm projects that from 2019 to 2022. investments in deepwater will reach $230 billion per year.
In particular, Lester says, “Right now there is a big push for 20,000 psi applications which is subsea or very deep on shore due to the depth.”
- Low Fugitive Emissions (LFE) – Lester says he is seeing a spike in LFE requests particularly on surface and topside applications that dictate these requirements. Focusing on reducing methane emissions is a trend Deloitte also notes in its outlook. Where one to two years ago, oil companies were looking to achieve Class B, ISO 15848-1 standards for emissions, now they are looking to achieve Class A, a topic that Saint-Gobain Seals presented on at the Fugitive Emissions Summit last year, sharing ongoing developments to optimize their valve stem sealing solutions.
Although some companies may claim their spring-based seals meet Class A; however, a word of caution: are they also using elastomer and graphite seals for redundancy or striving to achieve it on the one seal?
Sealing Technology: Changes to Address Increased Demands in Oil Recovery Process
First introduced to the oil and gas market in the 1970s, Saint-Gobain Seals’ OmniSeal® spring-energized seals were designed to solve extreme reliability and durability issues that could not be addressed with elastomeric seals. They consist of a PTFE, PEEK, or other polymer jacket encapsulating a metallic spring energizer usually combined with an anti-extrusion back-up ring.
Lester says he is seeing the most demand for seals to address cryogenic temperatures for LNG and extremely high temperatures in other applications.
Saint-Gobain Seals frequently uses Fluoroloy® AO2 (with low gas permeability, improved creep and extrusion resistance, and working temperatures from -200° to +260°C [-328° to +500°F] in sealing solutions for LFE but also cryogenic applications in LNG. Other popular polymer materials in oil and gas include:
- Meldin® 5301 – a proprietary, custom PEEK that is chemically and environmentally inert and offers good strength up to +260°C [+500°F], with high pressure and high temperature resistance.
- Fluoroloy® A16 – a proprietary, custom PTFE excellent for heat at -268° to +316°C [-450° to +600°F] and applications that require wear resistance.
- Fluoroloy® A21 – similar to Fluoroloy® A16 with increased hardness and wear.
When dealing with applications requiring extreme temperatures or pressures, oil and gas manufacturers should take a close look at the best materials and be aware that they may need to make some minor modifications. As companies move further downhole, pressures become so extreme that equipment, if not designed and configured specifically, can swell or compress, changing the diameter of the gland where the seal resides. If you add in motion, this creates an additional challenge.
To reduce the amount of extreme pressure being exerted, oil and gas manufacturers often remove voids in hardware by filling open areas with an inert, benign substance that does not compress such as mineral oil. In leveraging oil chambers, the effects of 20,000 psi downhole can be reduced to 5,000 psi across a seal. Bidirectional sealing can also be another consideration when it comes to high pressure and preventing cross-contamination.
Saint-Gobain Seals often receives requests for tests to ensure materials are a precise fit for larger, long-term projects. An example of this validation recently occurred when it was asked by a major U.S. oil and gas corporation to qualify its Fluoroloy® and polymer sealing materials for use in an ultra-high pressure oil recovery field in the Gulf of Mexico. The non-metallic materials were required to show that they address harsh hydrofluoric acid fluids and meet 20,000 psi.
Materials were tested by ageing them and submerging seal stacks in a hydrofluoric acid mixture at 20,000 psi and 300°F (149°C) for 160 hours. An independent, third-party testing firm recorded physical property measurements before and after exposure to assess changes in tensile, hardness, mass, density, volume, and deformation. It determined each of the four Saint-Gobain Seals’ Fluoroloy® materials met the industry requirements.
Sealing Expertise: Important Customer Considerations
What’s most important to customers, says Lester, is if we already have successful experience with a similar application.
Saint-Gobain Seals draws on a proven, six decades in designing sealing solutions for oil and gas in onshore and offshore exploration, production, and beyond. Several notable projects include use on the world’s first subsea compression station in the Norwegian Sea in depths of 3,000m (9,842 ft.) and surviving the harsh rigors of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. Specific applications include:
- Seat and stem seals, body/bonnet and body/closure static seals, v-packings and seat inserts in upstream and downstream systems
- Valve and manifold seals and backup rings in subsea drilling, production and transport
- Primary and secondary rotary face seals, water seals in cryogenic production and transport
- Seals in turret swivel stack systems in floating production
- Low fugitive emission seals in renewable energy
Due to their above expertise, they were requested by a major U.S. oil and gas customer to develop a technical engineering manual that provides selection guidelines for polymer lip seals in oil and gas API 6D isolation valves.
Sealing Testing: Investing for Extremes
Perhaps what prospects find most unique about Saint-Gobain Seals is its strategic advantage in finite element analysis (FEA). When it comes to metallics (such as with the spring in many seals), existing FEA models are accurate. However, off-the-shelf models for plastic-based materials are not, says Lester. Saint-Gobain Seals invested over three years to develop accurate nonmetallic thermoplastic models that serve as a comparison against physical tests in test rigs and on valve equipment to more accurately determine how seals will withstand wear and damage over time. Simulation through FEA is also faster and cheaper than purchasing prototypes and putting them to test.
Sealing "Hub": In the Heart of Texas
About his Houston office that opened in 2015, Lester says, “In terms of the company’s commitment to serving oil and gas companies globally, it is vital to have a presence in Houston, where a lot of projects are managed and requirements are created. While manufacturing and testing will be done all over the world, most projects will have some sort of management hub here. It’s like the “brain center” of oil and gas,” says Lester. Although many of the major oil and gas companies he supports are local, he has also traveled to Canada to support customers, most situated in Edmonton.
Describing Texas as the “brain center” for this industry is pretty apt since fuel has had a major impact on the state’s economy and continues to provide important economic benefits. As one of the largest producers of oil in the nation, it is a major player in the oil and gas industry. You may say that the state has oil in its blood, having a long history when the first boom began after the Spindletop oilfield was discovered in 1901.
What is it about oil and gas and your job that you find most interesting?
“The number one thing I enjoy most in this job is the fact that I get to interact with different customers on different applications. It never gets stale,” says Lester. “There’s always something fresh and new, even if it’s just another valve!”
Are you near our Seals “Hub”? Contact us to set up an appointment to meet Jake Lester and other members of our oil and gas team to discuss your specific requirements. We will also be exhibiting at Industrial Valve Summit in Italy in May and Valve World Americas in June so we hope to see you there!