The old cliche that “no news is good news” has held true for the vast majority of stories the public is exposed to regarding the oil and gas industry. While the majority of the time, pipelines, refineries and wells function as planned, the stories that become newsworthy are unfortunately the major disasters.
When dealing with corrosive and highly flammable materials at temperatures and pressures characteristic of pipelines and refineries, it is practically inevitable that eventually, something is going to fail. Whether there is an undetectable pinhole leak that finally reaches its breaking point, a slowly corroding piece of steel that finally cannot take the conditions, or an incidental pressure hiccup that exposes a weak point, there are going to be problems. With such expansion of our energy infrastructure, it is increasingly important to prevent these problems before happening.
Currently, there are a variety of tools used to accomplish this: pigs, smart pigs, flow meters, pressure gauges and an assortment of other tools. The majority of monitoring tools takes readings at start and finish points of the commodity and question. They can detect a problem, though not in real time. Finding the problem is something else altogether. Pigs are basically a metal log that is shot into the pipeline to clean out excess sludge and build up. With the advent of smart pigs, the industry has a way to identify problems easier.
Unfortunately, this information is not available in real time. One must go through the data the pig collects, and identify the location of a problem by backtracking and reverse calculating the location from a slew of data. Still, a dangerously inefficient process when a spill could be imminent and the clock is ticking.
Now where would 3D printing possibly fit to fix some of these major problems? Believe it or not, the technology or exists, it must merely be pulled together. The ‘smart pig’ scanning technology has already enabled the ability to detect problems in the pipeline. Why not try to fix them the moment they are identified? 3D printing with metal technology already exists. This could be as easy as sending a scanning pig to flag areas of concern then sending a 3D printing pig to fill in cracks. Or imagine if pipes were made of programmable 3d printed material that could expand or contract to change capacity or change flow rate to move the oil themselves?
Of course easy is a relative term when considering costs, research, prototyping, etc… yet when compared to identifying a crack, stopping production, replacing a section of pipeline and resuming, this becomes a much more simplified proposal. This becomes even easier when considering the possibility that the problem is not fixed in a timely manner and a newsworthy disaster is created instead.