How coating technology can dramatically extend the life of costly oil and gas assets

Harber Coatings founder and CEO Zhen Wang. Image: Harber Coatings

When commodity prices are low and oil and gas companies are cutting costs, it’s not easy to suggest spending more money.

But when spending a little more can get up to 20 times more life out of an asset, the argument becomes easier to digest.

That is essentially the sales pitch of a Calgary start-up applying a proprietary coating to oilfield parts and equipment, and it is on the cusp of taking its technology to the world.

Replacement and repair of damaged equipment is the largest maintenance requirement in oil and gas, but it can be minimized with technology like advanced coatings, says Vicky Alberto, business development director with Harber Coatings.

“We are focused on significantly reducing the replacement cost of parts, tools and downtime in the field for our clients,” she says.

To do so, Harber president and chief executive officer Zhen Wang developed an electroless nickel plating (ENP) technology called InnoGUARD.

Extending the life of critical metal

She says one of the main advantages of Wang’s ENP formulations--amorphous mixtures of nickel and phosphorous—stems from their stability and ability to be calibrated over time rather than created once and disposed of after the ingredients are depleted, as is typically the case. The formulations allowed Harber to move from 10-foot tanks to 45-foot tanks last year, greatly increasing the variety of items it could run through the process, such as longer tubing and bigger pressure vessels.

“Usually the solution can only stay stable up to about a 10–12-foot tank, and then once the nickel and phosphorus depletes, they have to dump the entire solution and start over again,” says Alberto. The company’s proprietary formula and its processing technologies are designed to allow it to continuously run its formula and reduce waste. “We have our chemical engineer monitoring the formula twice a day, topping it up as necessary,” she says.

Wang says that “the process itself is very stable—we call it a fool-proof process. Running the coating process does not need a lot of chemical knowledge, the solution never collapses and coating quality is excellent.”

The technique uses a nickel-phosphorous alloy deposited by a chemical reaction from hypophosphite on a catalytic substrate without the application of an electrical current. The coating thickness, from 0.0005 inch to 0.004 inch, is controlled by the length of time the metal substrate is left in a chemical bath solution. The autocatalytic chemical reaction deposits a controlled and uniform thickness even on complex-part geometry and eliminates the need to mask off areas and grind weld seams, according to Alberto. Heat and chemical post-treatment further increases hardness.

“Because it is a chemical bond, it becomes one with the substrate. It is bonded to that substrate until you actually wear it off; it will not peel, crack or flake,” she says, noting the coating can extend the life of critical metal items by more than 20 times, even when parts and tools are mechanically impacted or placed in highly corrosive environments with extreme temperature changes. It prevents corrosion from substances such as high chlorides, H2S, CO2, oxygen, steam and brine water that can be encountered in the oil and gas industry, she says.

With the installation of larger tanks and some of the largest processing equipment in the world, which enables much larger parts and tools to be coated, the company quadrupled its productivity and was actually able to decrease costs by 15 per cent, Alberto says. The company is also expanding into international consulting services with the creation of a Research Centre of Materials & Coatings.

Wang worked as an engineer in China for 10 years after completing a bachelor of engineering from the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He then obtained a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Oklahoma with overseas work in Thailand, which led to his desire to pursue developing his proprietary formula of ENP, targeted for the petrochemical and oil and gas industries.

Wang also has experience working as a chemical engineer in Calgary on projects such as pressure vessels. He founded Harber in 2002 to improve the stability of ENP products with unique formulas and custom processing technologies.

Techs on the horizon

Meanwhile, even with what he sees as a significant technology head-start on the competition, Wang is not standing still. With research and development facilities funded by the National Research Council Canada, Harber is developing a metallic ceramic liner, a supersonic arc metal spray and laser-assisted nano fusion products.

The metallic ceramic liner, which is designed to prevent erosion of pipelines due to solid particles like sand, is past the R&D stage and is now being tested by a major oil and gas customer, while the supersonic arc metal spray—also a mechanical bond of nickel-based product via spray application for parts that won’t fit in the company’s ENP tank—is estimated to be nearing the end of the R&D stage, Wang says.

Laser-assisted nano fusion, also nearing the completion of the R&D stage, involves metallurgical bonding by nickel-based overlay with low heat input. Traditional plasma overlay destroys a large portion of the designed mechanical properties of an overlay due to the high temperature of the process. Harber’s laser-assisted nano fusion process does an overlay at extra low temperatures, allowing it to avoid stress issues caused by the process and damage to the substrate. It is looking at applications for drill pipe hard bends, drill bits and oilsands bucket teeth.

As a material science research company, there is a “need to explore different things any way to solve certain industry issues,” Wang says.

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