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Better pipes for a better energy industry

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The Syensqo company, comprising the solutions, activities and markets represented in the article below, was spun off from Solvay group in December 2023.

Replacing steel with polymers in pipelines enables savings of all sorts

The energy sector, specifically oil & gas, is traditionally a steel-dominated industry and has been that way for over a century. But in the 1990s, Solvay developed a new grade of its Solef® PVDF high-stability fluorinated thermoplastic specifically designed for flexible pipes capable of withstanding the harsh conditions of offshore applications. High-performance polymers are the only alternative to steel for such demanding uses, and they come with a host of advantages over their steel equivalents.

At the end of the day, the only thing that really speaks to the industry is track record, and our high-performance polymers have a great one.

Mike O'Brien, Marketing Manager Energy, Specialty Polymers, Solvay

Now with a 20+ year track record, the oil & gas industry is increasingly adopting Solef® PVDF grade 60512 for its down-hole and subsea pipes – environments where conditions are particularly harsh, with more and more aggressive fluids, extreme temperatures and pressure.  The oil & gas industry is also increasingly adopting this product for on-shore uses as well, and with new sustainability-driven trends in the energy sector leaning towards natural gas and hydrogen, many more applications for polymer pipes are coming up.

Solef PVDF 001

High performing polymers for resource efficiency

But what is it that makes high-performance polymers so much more resource-efficient than steel? Take a seat, because the list is long… Solef® PVDF is one of Solvay’s numerous products and solutions that have major contributions for resource efficiency.

First of all: installation. Laying down a steel pipeline, at sea or on land, requires considerable resources. A polymer pipe is much lighter, so energy savings are significant right from the start, since much smaller trucks and boats are needed to transport it, which generates corresponding emissions reductions (and huge cost reductions too, since using smaller vessels can mean savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars a day). Resources in terms of manpower are reduced as well, with no need for teams of welders or to apply anti-corrosion coatings. All in all, the pipe is up and running much faster.

Next: Steel pipelines suffer from corrosion. “They need to be constantly patched up, which means shutting down operations every time,” explains Mike O'Brien, Marketing Manager Energy at Solvay’s Specialty Polymers. “Maintaining a steel pipeline of any type, offshore or onshore, is really a lifetime’s work.” 

The absence of corrosion also means less leakage. As a result, polymer pipelines reduce fugitive emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide, by 30%. They also have a surface that allows for the better circulation of fluids, so less energy is needed for pumping. Put together, all these advantages generate significant savings in terms of time, money and CO2.

And finally: lifetime. It is estimated that polymer pipelines can last at least 20 years in the harsh conditions of offshore drilling. “The first pipes made of Solef® PVDF were installed just over 20 years ago now, and it turns out most of them are still fine,” adds Mike. “So it’s pretty clear their lifetime can extend much longer.” Again, the resources saved by not having to pull out pipes and replace them every few years are not negligible.

Solef PVDF 002

The power of non-metallic piping solutions

As Mike mentioned, offshore Solef® PVDF pipes have a two-decade track record. Onshore is still a new area where steel still reigns supreme. “But we see a strong drive towards non-metallic solutions, simply because the advantages are so huge,” he continues. “In fact, when you look at all those advantages, it’s almost unthinkable not to use polymer pipes.”

Additionally, as sustainability considerations transform the energy industry and increasingly place the focus on natural gas and a whole new hydrogen industry, new target domains for polymer pipes are emerging. “Whatever the energy, quicker deployment and resource efficiency is appealing to everyone,” says Mike. “And new industries don’t have such a long-standing bias towards steel. At the end of the day, the only thing that really speaks to the industry is track record, and our polymers have a great one.”

Solar Impulse Foundation Solef PVDF

Awareness of the performance and benefits offered by Solef® PVDF is bound to continue in the future, especially since the product was labelled by the Solar Impulse Foundation as an Efficient Solution to change the world. Simultaneously, Solvay is hard at work extending its offer for pipelines with composite materials. “We’re currently working on next-generation composites for pipes: PVDF-based carbon fiber that will make them even lighter,” continues Mike. Evolite® is already used for steel replacement in other applications, thus enhancing the advantages of using polymers and accelerating the evolution towards more efficiency.

One thing is for sure: high-performance polymers and thermoplastic composites have a lot more to offer the energy industry and the planet.