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An engineer's pipe dream
A state-of-the-art facility is home to an institute with a worldwide reputation.

May 17, 2006
By Mariel Betancourt

If your house is a maze of pipelines rivaling Willy Wonka's wild factory, and your weekends are spent tending to their every maintenance need, then you've probably heard of the Ohio University Institute for Corrosion and Multiphase Technology.

Photo by Rick FaticaHowever, if you're not within the institute's highly selective loop of information - which includes the world's top oil and gas companies - then you'd probably be surprised to discover it operates within a million-dollar superlab tucked away on West State Street.

It's a unique 20,000-square-foot facility, filled with pipes that snake around the room, oozing and chugging with mixtures of oil, gas and water. A place where giant oil tanks stand alongside machinery that buzzes and hums. A place where decaying metals are not tossed out, but poked, prodded, dissected and discussed by student engineers eager to understand corrosion's greatest mysteries.

Yes, corrosion. Our common, everyday foe that causes cars to brown and nails to crumble is also one of the oil and gas industry's costly enemies. 

The students ask questions such as: What causes steel pipelines to corrode from the inside as they transport oil and gas? How does corrosion set in even when little or no water is present? How can this be prevented? They search for answers in hopes of, if not ridding the world of corrosion for good, at least predicting its behavior. And their research fuels one of the world's most important industries while at the same time providing them practical knowledge of engineering processes. 

"Everything's corroding," says Professor of Chemical Engineering Srdjan Nesic, the institute's director. "Cars. Pipelines. Implants in human bodies. Power plants. Corrosion can be seen as a return of the metal to its original state. It came from the ground, and now it is decaying back to its natural state.

"Corrosion is as old as the world we live in and as inevitable as the passage of time," he adds. "Yet the science of corrosion is still young with many unanswered questions and research challenges ahead. It is a fertile field for investigation."

The impact of the institute's work is universal: BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil, among others, invest thousands, and sometimes millions, in its research. 

Theirs is an industry that must understand corrosion. Oil and gas companies can't afford to use corrosion-proof stainless steel to build the pipelines that transport oil from a well to a refinery. (It's also impossible; there's not enough stainless steel in the world for this.) Instead, they use cheaper metals and do the best they can to predict when pipes will need to be replaced. In a worst-case scenario, internal corrosion can cause a pipe to burst, spilling its contents and damaging the environment. 

Imagine a solution

Corrosion of all kinds can eat away at an estimated 2 to 4 percent of a country's gross domestic product.

"We deal with corrosion of a huge infrastructure, of these pipelines in the oil and gas industry," Nesic says. "Clearly we know this is a pillar the world stands on. Keeping that infrastructure running and reliable has enormous importance not only for the companies that own the infrastructure, but the society at large."

Oil and gas pipelines can stretch more than 1,000 miles and cost billions to build. Yet their requirements for maintenance are constantly changing. As the world exhausts "sweet" wells that flow easily with pure oil - think of the Beverly Hillbillies' well spouting black gold - and taps remote, difficult and often "sour" wells, engineers will have to fight more and more corrosives, such as hydrogen sulfide, a highly poisonous and environmentally unfriendly gas. 

"The community increasingly depends more and more on us to push the boundaries of knowledge further, advise them and give them the tools to cope with the problems they are facing," Nesic says. 

That's a challenge the institute has welcomed since its creation in 1990 and is well-equipped to handle, Nesic says. The university has the only large-scale corrosion testing facility in the United States and one of the largest in the world. It impresses not only with its size, but also with the real-life conditions it can replicate. Pipes meet specifications of those in the field; one pipeline loop lifts to a fully upright position and can reach 65 feet in the air. 

The institute's focus on practical research has attracted a diverse crew of 14 current master's and doctoral students to the university's Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering. They hail everywhere from China to Venezuela, and after graduation, many will work with the same companies that benefit from the institute's research. 

Pipeline to the industry

Photos by Rick Fatica"I wanted to study something that was practical," says graduate student Dezra Hinkson, from Trinidad and Tobago. "Here we get the results, and we can see how it correlates in the field. I'm not experimenting on something I can't see with my own eyes."

Graduate student Joshua Addis, BSCHE '05, agrees, saying he prefers the hands-on research at the institute to the computer-heavy work typical of other engineering fields.

"I built part of that loop right there," he says, pointing at a pipeline. "I know not only the math, the theory behind it, but I can make a working flow loop, too." 

Though Nesic says the institute has reached a comfortable size in number of students, he hopes it will continue to attract attention and new projects. Recently ExxonMobil enhanced its commitment to the institute, providing $1.2 million for a research contract through 2007. 

Instead of focusing on the pipelines transporting oil to the refineries (as most other studies at the institute do), the ExxonMobil study will investigate the causes of corrosion in the extremely hot environments within the refineries themselves. Without water present, pipes continue to corrode, a phenomenon puzzling to scientists. 

By fielding research requests from places as far away as Australia, Vietnam and Oman, the institute spreads the university's name beyond Ohio and the United States.

"That's very important for us at OU," Nesic says. "One of the university's missions is to foster world-class research that stands out. At the institute, we are there."

Mariel  Betancourt, MS '06, is the assistant editor of Ohio Today. This story appears in the Winter 2006 issue of Ohio Today.

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Published: Jul 20, 2006 3:50:00 PM
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