Researchers leverage genomics to fight corrosion in pipelines and infrastructure

Image: JWN

When BP announced in 2006 it would shut down its 400,000-barrel-a-day Prudhoe operations in Alaska while it replaced 25 kilometres of suspect piping, threatening to cut off eight per cent of U.S. oil production, it already had a prime suspect in mind. Some five kilometres of the line that carries oil to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, connecting all of Alaska’s oilfields to seaports, had fallen victim to corrosion caused by bacteria, which can colonize the sludge that collects in pipes.

Corrosion of steel infrastructure is estimated to cost the oil and gas industry in the range of $3 billion to $7 billion each year in maintenance, repairs and replacement. Microbiologically influenced corrosion is responsible for at least 20 per cent of that cost.

That is the type of damage being targeted by Genome Canada in a four-year, $7.8 million collaborative research project that will bring together experts in disciplines like microbiology, metallurgy and genomics to study microbiologically influenced corrosion (MIC). The research aims to find new ways to allow corrosion managers to better predict when, where and why MIC occurs and how to mitigate it.

Working with Genome Alberta and Genome Atlantic, project leaders John Wolodko of the University of Alberta, Lisa Gieg of the University of Calgary and Faisal Khan of Memorial University are heading up the project, Managing Microbial Corrosion in Canadian Offshore and Onshore Oil Production, with other agencies and researchers from across Canada and internationally.

The project is expected to improve asset integrity and reduce the chances of oil spills, while extending the productive life of Canada’s oil and gas infrastructure, reducing operating costs and generating potential capital savings of some $300-500 million.

In the short term, the project will generate best practices and a database of microbial communities that can be used to develop new rapid deployment techniques for the field, Wolodko told JWN Energy. “It can be used to develop models to help predict where an environment might be more susceptible to MIC.” In the long term, it will produce new technologies to predict and prevent corrosion long before that happens, he said.

“The cost of corrosion to society is quite staggering,” said Wolodko, an associate professor in the Department of Renewable Resources in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences. It also attacks other infrastructure like bridges, culverts and tanks, as well as ships, aircraft and automobiles at a cost in the trillions of dollars globally.

And the activity of corrosion-causing microbes such as bacteria and fungi represents the most poorly understood form of corrosion, he said, comparing its complexity to that of a cancer diagnosis and treatment in the medical field.

“Like cancer, we know some things about it and we are good at some things—we have treatment methods that work. But we don’t fully understand the problem. We don’t know if we have it optimized and if we are using the best techniques. So that’s really what this is about is to put some multidisciplinary effort into seeing if we can do a better job of understanding microbial corrosion and then we can start looking at trying to improve ways to mitigate it and essentially help the engineering community to do a better job of pipeline integrity.”

The project aims to do so by pinpointing exactly how specific genera of bacteria feed on nutrients found in waters and soils to modify the local chemistry and render it more corrosive to metal.

Separating the good microbes from the bad is a good place to start. “There are a number of bacteria out there that are well known to cause potential corrosion problems, but it is a very small fraction of the total microbial population that might exist in pipelines. With the advent of new genomics technology and in particular rapid processing and analysis of communities, meaning that we can actually now very quickly identify different types of microbes that are in a given material, that allows us to go back and better understand what the variety of microbial populations are,” Wolodko said.

“It is a combination of different microbial communities that come together to cause these problems. We can now start thinking about whether we are missing some key communities or types of microbes that either contribute directly to causing the corrosion or, equally important, communities that might help those other bugs exist.”

The research team will take samples from a wide range of environments including offshore platforms and both upstream pipelines and transmission pipelines, which are all associated with different fluid chemistries and physical characteristics. Industry partners include both pipeline companies, which supply samples and data, and companies in the supply chain that provide monitoring and mitigation technologies, said Wolodko.

Current methods to mitigate the damage to pipelines include internal pipe monitoring technologies and the use of biocides and corrosion inhibitors.

Also working on the project is Rob Beiko, an associate professor in computer science and Canada Research Chair in Bioinformatics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., and Tesfaalem Haile, a senior corrosion specialist at InnoTech Alberta in Devon. Beiko will build a database to analyse the microbiology and chemistry lab results, while Haile’s team will be working with the University of Alberta to simulate microbial corrosion in the lab and at the pilot-scale.

“This work will definitely help to pinpoint how microbial activity causes corrosion in carbon steel infrastructure and help in its early detection so we can minimize leaks,” said the U of C’s Gieg, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. “It’s not just about pipelines, this research will look at all points of contact between oil and steel in extraction, production and processing. This work can help make the industry safer.”

The project was one of 13 applied research projects deploying genomics to address challenges in Canada's natural resources and environment sectors announced Thursday. They entail $32 million in federal funding and $78 million from co-funders from provinces, international organizations and the private sector.

Another project involving Genome Alberta, as well as Genome Prairie, will investigate microbial genomics for oil spill preparedness in Arctic waters. Casey Hubert of the University of Calgary and Gary Stern of the University of Manitoba are leading the team that will use microbial genomics to generate science-based evidence on the role and potential of bioremediation to deal with oil spills in the cold, ice-laden Arctic Ocean.

Increased traffic in the Northwest Passage in recent years thanks to reduced sea ice cover and ice-free summers is leading to greater risk of accidental releases of diesel or bunker fuel. Oil and gas exploration is also leading to fears of an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean. It is known that marine microbial communities can help clean up, or bioremediate, oil spills in the south, where it is warmer. The $10.7 million project will examine its effectiveness in the Arctic.