Deepwater pipelines – Taking the challenge to new depths

July 1, 2009

Martin Connelly - Corus Tubes

To ensure continuity of supply, E&P companies have to consider opportunities in ever increasing water depths. Assisting this are new technological advances, including pipeline manufacture and design that increase the technical feasibility of deepwater developments.

Deepwater pipeline challenges

Conventional pipeline design, although concerned with many factors, is dominated generally by the need to withstand an internal pressure. The higher the pressure that products can be passed down the line, the higher the flow rate and greater the revenue potential. However, factors critical for deepwater pipelines become dominated by the need to resist external pressure, particularly during installation.

Local infield lines, such as subsea umbilicals, risers, and flowlines (SURF) usually are modest challenges as they are small in diameter and inherently resistant to hydrostatic collapse. In smaller sizes, these lines generally are produced as seamless pipe which is readily available and generally economical.

However, deepwater trunklines and long-distance tiebacks present a greater challenge. To increase subsea production these lines tend to be larger in diameter with a thicker pipe wall to withstand the hydrostatic pressure and bending as it is laid to the seabed.

Typically these lines are often 16 in. to 20 in. (40 cm to 50 cm) in diameter, which presents a further complication as the pipe sizes lie at the top end of economical production for seamless (Pilger) pipes. The Pilger process can produce the thick walled pipe required for these developments but often the manufacturing process is slow, the cost of material high, and the pipe lengths short. As a result, the most economical method to manufacture these lines is the UOE process. The increasingly stringent industry demands have driven this design toward its practical limits of manufacture and installation.

Corus Tubes has responded by manufacturing UOE double submerged arc welded (DSAW) linepipe to the deepest pipelines in the world. This pipe overcomes significant challenges associated with deepwater developments and facilitated a number of pioneering projects such as Bluestream and Perdido.

In the UOE process, steel plate is pressed into a “U” and then into an “O” shape and then is expanded circumferentially. Wall thickness and diameter requirements for deepwater trunkline pipe continue to be challenging for manufacturing economics and installation capabilities.

Distribution curve depicting ovality of Perdido pipe (457 mm x 20.62 mm thick).

While few producers manufacture UOE pipes at 16- to 20-in. outside diameter, this manufacturing method is quicker to market and more cost-effective than seamless alternatives. Corus Tubes’ process seeks to optimize the design of the material and minimize the wall thickness to:

  • Reduce material cost
  • Reduce welding cost
  • Reduce installation time
  • Reduce pipe weight for logistics and submerged pipe weight considerations
  • Increase design scope enabling a wider range of deepwater developments.

Det Norske Veritas (DNV) says the acceptability of a pipeline design for a given water depth is determined by means of standard equations that measure the relationship between OD, wall thickness, pipe shape, and material compressive strength.

Pipe shape

Finished pipe shape is optimized by balancing the manufacturing parameters, pipe compression, and expansion. The crimp, U-press, and O-press combination ensures that the pipe size is controlled, often beyond most offshore specifications. Enhanced pipe “roundness”, wall thickness, and diameter tolerance removes uncertainty in the design and production stages and allows pipe wall thickness optimization.

Compressive strength

Pipe manufactured by the UOE process undergoes various strain cycles, both tensile and compressive. The combination of these cycles affects the overall behavior of the material in compression. This is indicated in the equation given in the offshore design standardDNV OS F101 by the presence of the Fabrication Factor αfab. For standard UOE processes, the term represents a de-rating of 15% in the compressive strength as a result of the material response to the strain cycles during forming, known as the Bauschinger Effect.

This diagram represents the relationship between stress and strain when a material is placed in tension (top right quadrant) and then into compression (bottom left quadrant). When material is first placed in tension, such that it is deformed plastically, the yield stress in compression is reduced (compare this with the projected compressive strength in the bottom left quadrant had the pre-tension not been applied).

When material is first placed in tension such that it is deformed plastically, the yield stress in compression is reduced. This originally was reported by Bauschinger in 1881. It is relevant to pipe making because during the forming process the material is placed in tension during expansion. Following this, the material is dispatched for installation, where the pipe sees compressive stress from the pressure of the seawater. Conventionally, the 15% reduction in compressive strength compensates for the Bauschinger Effect.

Since the early 1990s, Corus Tubes has observed that the results it obtained from the forming process often yielded higher compressive strengths than those obtained from the standard equations. Research and process development leads to a greater understanding of the metallurgical transformations during pipe forming. It is possible to reverse the Bauschinger Effect to deliver pipe with compressive strengths higher than conventionally expected.

Three things influence the final pipe mechanical properties in compression:

1 Choice of plate feedstock. The strength of the final pipe is a function of the chemistry and grain structure of the mother plate from which it is fabricated. All aspects of plate manufacture, the chemistry, rolling schedule as well as cooling rates ensure that the final plate properties change to give the required pipe characteristics.

2 Choice of mill compression and expansion parameters. By optimizing the various compression and expansion cycles, a set of manufacturing conditions can be determined to enhance collapse performance to potentially reduce pipe wall thickness in future deepwater applications.

3 Controlled low temperature heat treatment. With the correct plate chemistry it is possible to deliver a lift in compression strength through the application of a low temperature heat treatment. This final part of the process can be measured and assured only if the correct attention has been paid to the previous manufacturing stages.

A number of groundbreaking projects have pushed the boundaries of deepwater exploration and production, and enhanced understanding of pipeline capabilities and limits. In 2000, ExxonMobil used 64 km (40 mi) of line pipe for the Hoover/Diana project which reached depths of 1,450 m (4,800 ft). This also was the first time that small diameter pipe from Corus Tubes’ UOE mill in Hartlepool, UK, was supplied to the deepwater Gulf of Mexico market.

In 2001, Corus Tubes supplied 94 km (45,000 metric tons [49,604 tons]) of three-layer polypropylene coated, high grade, sour service linepipe and bends for the technically challenging Bluestream project which supplies gas from Russia to Turkey under the Black Sea. Corus also was selected to provide pipe for the deepest section of the pipeline at 2,150 m (7,054 ft) water depth.

Corus Tubes recently supplied line pipe to the Perdido Norte project in the Gulf of Mexico. Williams commissioned the production of small diameter UOE pipe and approximately 312 km (194 mi) of uncoated steel line pipe for ultra deepwater depths from 3,500-8,300 ft (1,067-2,530 m) with a rugged seabed terrain. The pipe, manufactured to withstand a service rating equivalent to ANSI 1500, is one of the deepest pipelines in the world.

One section of the pipeline transfers hydrocarbons from the FPS host in Alaminos Canyon block 857 and terminates in East Breaks block 994 (78 mi [126 km]). The gas pipeline terminates at Williams Seahawk pipeline in East Breaks block 599 (106 mi [171 km]). The 18-in. (46-cm) diameter pipe was manufactured in wall thicknesses ranging from 19.1 mm to 27.0 mm (¾ in. to 1 in.).

Further to the experiences on Perdido, Corus has produced a thicker pipe at 18-in. diameter for the Petrobras Tupi project. The pipe has a wall thickness of 31.75 mm (1 ¼ in.) and lies in a water depth of 2,200 m (7,218 ft) offshore Brazil. While this project is not the deepest, it represents a milestone in pipe forming. This is the thickest UOE pipe ever manufactured at 18-in. diameter (note as the diameter of a pipe reduces and thickness increases, the levels of strain and power required to forming it increases).

Tupi is a testimony to the complexity of deepwater pipe design. While collapse at these water depths is a critical design state, there also were concerns about corrosion, since the Tupi production has some small amounts of contaminants in the exportation gas (about 5% CO2 and a very small amount of H2S). Even though the exported gas should be dehydrated, the CO2 raises concerns about pipe corrosion and is managed by increasing the nominal wall thickness to account for loss of material during life. At the end of the pipe life it still must withstand the pressure at the seabed even with a reduced wall thickness.

The H2S, although not expected in the exported gas, could cause cracking to occur in steels where the grain structure and cleanliness is not optimized. In addition, high levels of forming strain can exacerbate the situation. Corus Tubes applied its knowledge of steel production and pipe forming to ensure that the plate it procured from Dillinger Hutte and Voest Alpine provided ultimate resistance to H2S corrosion.

Pipelines in deepwater require the tightest dimensional tolerances to maximize resistance to collapse and to maximize girth weld fatigue resistance. Furthermore, pipelines from 16-in. to 28-in. (71-cm) are seen as the future for deepwater export pipeline systems.

About the author

Martin Connelly is responsible for ensuring Corus Tubes’ line pipe can meet the difficult technical demands. He also oversees the company’s new product and market development. Connelly joined Corus Group in 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Metallurgy and Engineering Material from Strathclyde University. He worked in a number of technical, quality, and operational roles before being promoted to product development metallurgist.