Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ohio University lab studies microbial corrosion in pipelines

ATHENS, Ohio - Ohio University's pipeline-corrosion laboratory is the world's largest of its kind.

Some experts suspect that internal corrosion caused by microbes could have caused the recent San Bruno, Calif., explosion.

"There are leaks on a daily basis somewhere in the world from corrosion alone," says Srdjan Nesic, the lab director.

As oil and gas companies use new methods, such as injecting water to extract energy from increasingly difficult wells, he said, they're also introducing contaminants that can lead to more corrosion.

The institute, which employs 50 researchers, graduate students and support staff, was started in the early 1990s and moved into its current lab in 1997. It gets almost all of the $2.5 million it spends each year from oil and gas companies, including ExxonMobil, BP and ConocoPhillips.

The funding is not a lot compared to the costs of a major pipeline break, which can easily top $100 million.

Inside the corrosion lab, researchers can re-create just about any set of real-life circumstances a pipeline could endure. There are nine loops of pipe. Some can be set for pressures as intense as those pipes would encounter deep under the sea. Autoclaves heat samples as hot as 600 degrees to mirror conditions in oil refineries.

There's even a loop on a huge tilt table that can be raised up vertically beneath the center's four-story ceiling.

"Everything changes when you do that," Nesic said.

Researchers can fill the pipes with dozens of crude-oil samples from around the world. They also can use natural gas or even hydrogen sulfide gas, a key enemy in the war against corrosion. Those experiments are done in a safe room.

Researchers put small pieces of pipeline materials, called "coupons," inside a loop for testing. The coupon is checked for corrosion, with pits measured under an electron microscope and a special optical microscope that creates 3-D images.

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