With natural gas becoming a topic of increasing interest, it is only expected that the infrastructure is revised and/or enhanced to further develop new projects. In fact, the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources (MoP) aims to expand the capacity of national gas grid over the coming years. Already, Egypt has successfully managed to increase the total grid length by 4,820 km over the course of 23 years. However, with Egypt striving further to be the region’s natural gas hub, it is important to ensure that the technical elements of pipelines – especially deep water pipelines – are at their prime capacities too.

General Overview of the Conventional Infrastructure

Before assessing the ways in which deep water pipelines could be improved, it is important to consider the technical elements of the existing typical infrastructure available for natural gas pipelines.In the oil and gas industry, there are various metal and non-metal pipe materials  used to transport natural gas as well as other petroleum products. Typically, metal pipes consist of steel (or more specifically, black steel), copper, brass, or even Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing (CSST). However, copper is not usually allowed due to the high hydrogen sulfide level that could eventually ruin the interior lining of the pipe. As for non-metal materials, typically, Polyethylene (PE) pipelines are used for natural gas applications as they are corrosion resistant as well as abrasion resistant. One of the main weaknesses of PE pipelines is that the material could deteriorate when exposed to sunlight, giving it an advantage in deep water applications.

At the moment, there are several challenges in the infrastructure design of natural gas pipelines, especially deep water pipelines. This is due to the high external pressures surrounding the pipelines. Usually, deep water pipelines consist of extra material to create a thicker pipe lining as a result of increasing pressure levels the deeper the pipeline is located. Also, the tension capacity puts a limit on the depth that the pipelines could be laid underwater. In fact, conventional steel pipelines can only be placed at a maximum of a 3,000m depth. Additionally, there is a concern of pipeline freezing or delayed flow of natural gas through pipelines with a surrounding water temperature below 0f Celcius. Additionally, from an environmental perspective, there is a huge concern over the potential for natural gas leakage at low sea levels, which would be difficult to avoid and even more complicated to repair in the case of an accident.  These are some examples of the challenges faced with conventional deep water pipeline infrastructure.

Enhancing Infrastructure

It is essential to consider that the deep water gas pipelines could be improved from a technical perspective through the application of new and innovative technologies. For example, the application of reinforced thermoplastic composite pipelines is becoming more and more common among deep water projects. In fact, these reinforced thermoplastic composite pipelines are considered to be a high performance material incorporated within the material mix rather than used as an epoxy between pipe sections; this further strengthens the pipe and prevents collapses from occurring.

Consequently, one of the more impressive solutions is that of diverless technologies. Diverless technologies offer a remote solution for quick access and repairing of abrupt issues or leakages in the deep water pipelines. In fact, especially in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic when there is a shortage of staff available onsite, and in time of unexpected emergencies call for quick and efficient solutions. The added benefit of such technologies is that smart fittings are designed to continue operations while any issues are fixed. This is instead of shutting down all operations to solve an unexpected issue (or simply just carrying out preventative maintenance), which would have been both uneconomical and time-consuming.

As suggested by Dr.Mohamed Gaber, Senior Process and Pipeline Design Engineer at Petroject, “The main design challenge is related to the high external pressure that may cause collapse of the pipeline. This potential failure mode is normally dealt with by increasing the pipe wall thickness, but at ultra-deep water depths this may require a very thick walled pipe that becomes very costly, difficult to manufacture and hard to install due to its weight.” In finding a solution for this technical blunder, Gaber noted that, “One approach to overcome this is to improve some of the parameters that determine the collapse resistance by an improved manufacturing process.”

While there are new and innovative technologies for deep water pipeline applications that are constantly being developed, the actual construction and implementation processes remain similar to conventional methods. However, smart technologies such as flexible risers, cassions, diverless remote technology, and other subsea equipment have been modified to carry out the same functions, but at optimal levels of efficiency and at reduced timings.

Case Study

One of the most recent and impressive engineering developments was the invention of using 3D honeycomb lattices. The honeycomb shaped lattices are created through the process of 3D printing using a variation of materials. These lattices are built in layers of thin plates stacked on top of each other. In fact, this material has an added advantage over the conventional steel plates in that the strength to weight ratio of the 3D honeycomb lattices is much higher than that of conventional steel. Additionally, as opposed to prefabricated steel plates, honeycomb lattices could be designed and altered to meet the necessary technical specifications of each pipelines. These 3D honeycomb lattices are more economical solutions especially when they offer the option to repair old and worn pipelines rather than replace the pipeline in its entirety. Finally, the lifetime of the material supersedes that of conventional metal lining in addition to also being anti-corrosive and anti-crushing (i.e. able to withstand high pressures without being crushed or crumbling).

In fact, Gaber noted that, “When it comes to improvement; the additional manufacturing and testing requirements include [having] tighter tolerances for line pipes suitable for deep-water installations. Also deep-water installation capabilities of Pipe lay Barges for the laying of pipeline in the deep-water to ultra-deep waters along with new evolving testing and commissioning philosophies [are other forms of solutions].”

To conclude, there are multiple ways in which the deep water gas pipelines could be even further improved and adapted in Egypt. With new technologies in material development, riser compactness and overall infrastructure development, Egypt’s aim to become a regional gas hub becomes increasingly easier to achieve. With the ongoing pandemic and its potential for a second wave, smart and remote technologies are becoming more widespread with higher demands. Experts believe that, even after the end of the pandemic, smart technologies will still have a crucial role in the oil and gas industry as a result of the technologies’ increasing technical efficiencies and reduced time consuming activities. These are the ways in which the change in deep water pipeline infrastructure have been developed and would be adapted in many future applications in the region.