Some 70 miles off the shore of Louisiana, ExxonMobil and several partners are drilling a well intended to achieve depths previously unattainable in the Gulf Coast region of the U.S. This well may ultimately reach 33,000 ft below the surface, over six miles underground, at an anticipated cost exceeding $60 million. Bottomhole temperatures and pressures will exceed 400¼F and 25,000 psi, respectively. While certainly noteworthy, this well is not the exception. In the near future, a number of these ultradeep wells are planned in the area.
Over 100 miles further offshore, BP is completing the installation of a floating production facility for the largest oil field ever located in the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of feet below the platform, steel structures are being installed on the seabed to control the recovery of an estimated one billion barrels of oil. Dozens of these deepwater fields are already producing and many more are planned for the Gulf of Mexico, offshore Brazil, West Africa and elsewhere.
High risk/high reward exploration associated with ultradeep wells and deepwater fields opens up a number of exciting and high value markets for ceramics. While numerous challenges are associated with entering these markets, substantial funding is available to support the development and field testing of ceramics and other new materials.
Even the ubiquitous pump jacks dotting the landscape in areas such as West Texas and around Bakersfield, Calif., routinely have silicon nitride check balls in their underground mechanical pumps. In all of these instances, the unique characteristics of ceramics provide value to the petroleum industry.
Wells drilled to these depths test the limits of metallurgy, and ceramics-with their high tolerance for heat, corrosion and erosion-have numerous applications. During the drilling process, hot drilling fluids circulate through the drill pipe and back to the surface. Ceramic seals and surface assemblies will become an integral part of these high-pressure, high-temperature drilling systems.
Once the drilling stops, wells are evaluated through electrical devices lowered into the well bore and then slowly removed. These logging tools are exposed to the full brunt of the downhole environment. The inclusion of ceramic structural elements, gears and valves makes these devices more reliable and better able to withstand such harsh environments.
Ultradeep wells are always expensive. To achieve a satisfactory return on investment, the wells must produce large volumes of hydrocarbons for years, perhaps even decades. To accomplish these economic objectives, well operators are implementing intelligent completion systems, which transfer some portion of the well's surface control valves underground, thereby allowing the well to simultaneously produce hydrocarbons from multiple zones with widely different pressures and fluid concentrations.
These systems accelerate the recovery of the well's hydrocarbons and are therefore economically attractive; however, they are technically complex. Typically, they include a myriad of sliding surfaces, valves and gears that must work for years under challenging physical conditions. Ceramic components are a natural choice for many of these key subcomponents.
In addition, many deepwater wells suffer from another problem commonly referred to as flow assurance. Oil and gas produced from deepwater wells flow for miles or tens of miles through pipelines on the seabed. The surrounding ocean water is very cold, and the hydrocarbons in these pipelines frequently cool to a point where waxes, hydrates and related compounds begin to come out of solution. If left unchecked, these precipitates restrict and eventually block the pipelines.
To counteract this problem, various chemicals called hydrate inhibitors are injected into the pipelines. The inhibitors effectively prevent the formation of hydrates; however, they are also highly corrosive. Some manufacturers of this subsea equipment are already using ceramics in key assemblies exposed to the inhibitors. This represents an emerging high-value market for ceramics, particularly given the high cost of these wells and the myriad problems associated with repairing corroded components inside a deepwater production system.
The major oil companies have largely disbanded their R&D groups, as have many of the leading companies providing products and services to this industry. Consequently, a concerted effort is required to identify not only potential commercial partners within this industry, but also the new product champions within these commercial partners.
Ceramics also face a geographic challenge in this industry. Virtually the entire U.S. petroleum industry is concentrated in or around Houston, Texas. The leading petroleum industry trade shows in the U.S., such as the Offshore Technology Conference, are also usually held in Texas. Interestingly, these industry events attract limited participation from the ceramic industry. Ceramic manufacturers pursuing new opportunities in this industry will need to attend and actively participate in these key networking events.
The DOE is currently in the process of selecting a non-profit industry consortium to manage the program specified in the Energy Policy Act. This consortium will work closely with the DOE to delineate technology requirements, issue requests for research proposals and administer proposal awards. Winning these competitive solicitations will require collaboration. Ceramic manufacturers seeking to participate in this process will need to develop strong ties with the existing suppliers of the key systems used in both ultradeep drilling and deepwater exploration.