Non-intrusive inspections could save millions

 By Peter Ward

In the energy business, downtime is an expense that should be avoided at all costs. But that need to keep going has to be weighed against safety concerns. A new technology promises to help keep equipment safe while minimizing lost time and production…

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Pressure vessels play a crucial role in the oil and gas industry. And it can be extremely costly and disruptive to take them offline and perform tests on them. Historically, pressure vessels have been inspected using internal visual examinations, which means shutting the equipment down and looking inside. But the development of techniques such as ultrasound, and the increasing computer power capable of processing the information they provide quickly, means that non-invasive methods have come to the fore in recent times.

Thick, magnetic walls

Performing checks on the vessels without shutting them down is called Non-Intrusive Inspection (NII), and has been used widely on mainland facilities, but is now making a big impact offshore. While the technology has been used in many other industries, pressure vessels in the oil and gas sector have thick, magnetic walls, which make it difficult to use non-intrusive inspection accurate and reliable.
Generally, the technology involves using electromagnetic currents or radiography to detect any differences in the inside of a structure, which can highlight corrosion or cracking. But the thickness of the oil and gas vessels makes this tricky. But as the technology improves, so does its potential usage in the energy industry.

Million in savings

The major advantage to using the system is the huge savings that can be made, while maintaining safety levels. A survey conducted by the Oil & Gas Technology Centre in the U.K., and ABB, recently found that by adopting non-intrusive inspection technology the UK offshore industry could save up to £242 million per year.
The report found that current usage of the technology in the U.K.’s waters was currently limited, and some operators don’t use the cost-saving systems at all. The research also found that up to 80 percent of vessels could be examined non-intrusively, without any need for a shut down, and safety would be improved with up to 80 percent of fewer confined space entries required.
“NII provides a real opportunity to improve the competitiveness of the UK North Sea and help maximize economic recovery. One of our key objectives is to eliminate vessel entry for inspection by 2026 and NII is critical to delivering this. We’re working with industry partners to demonstrate that the significant safety and costs benefits outlined in the survey can be achieved,” Rebecca Allison, Asset Integrity Solution Centre Manager at the Oil & Gas Technology Centre, said. “We hope this survey and recent field trials will help break down the barriers to implementing NII and spark a technology transformation in offshore inspection techniques.”
The Oil & Gas Technology Centre recently demonstrated the potential savings of the technology through three inspection trials.
Non-intrusive inspection technology is just the latest form of automation in the oil and gas industry that also has the potential for major safety benefits. While some have questioned the job-losses associated with using robotics for previously human jobs, the potential to take humans out of unsafe environments cannot be denied.

READ MORE: Automating oil and gas by Peter Ward

about the author
Peter Ward
Business and technology reporter based in New York. MA in Business Journalism at Columbia University Journalism School 2013. Five years experience reporting in the U.S., the U.K., and the Middle East.