Newfoundland’s offshore set to help unlock mysteries of microbial corrosion

Newfoundland’s offshore is expected to yield significant data for a four-year, $7.8 million collaborative genomics research project focusing on microbiologically-influenced corrosion (MIC) of oil and gas pipelines. MIC is believed to account for roughly 20 percent of corrosion failures in oil and gas pipelines, costing the oil and gas industry billions of dollars a year on control, repair and prevention measures to avoid oil spills directly related to MIC.

Managing Microbial Corrosion in Canadian Offshore and Onshore Oil Production is using genomics to better predict how, where and why MIC occurs and how to mitigate it. Funded under Genome Canada’s Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition (LSARP), the project is co-led by an interdisciplinary team of scientists at the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta and Memorial University in Newfoundland and is co-managed by Genome Alberta and Genome Atlantic.

“MIC is an important issue in offshore operations. It often goes undetected and causes failure,” says Memorial University’s Dr. Faisal Khan, one of the project co-leads and head of the project’s Memorial University team whose main focus is uncovering how microbes cause corrosion. “This project will develop the mechanisms to detect early MIC occurrence and model MIC-induced failure.”

A Canada Research Chair (Tier I) in Safety and Risk Engineering and a chemical engineer, Khan works with the oil and gas industry on safety and asset integrity and is well-acquainted with Atlantic Canada’s offshore. He explains that while MIC is well documented, it is poorly understood.

“We know that microbes cause corrosion but we are examining how they cause corrosion. We will do this by identifying the chemical source and how it reacts to the surface of the metal to cause corrosion. The risk models we’re developing will link the corrosion process to the outcome,” Khan explains. “This will be very important for industry when evaluating their level of corrosion intervention and control and where to focus their resources on corrosion mitigation.”

Dr. Lisa Gieg of the University of the University of Calgary and the overall project lead, explains that sampling will be key to the research team’s examination of corrosion. A microbiologist, Gieg studies anaerobic hydrocarbon metabolism and specializes in environmental and petroleum microbiology, and is responsible for the genomics aspects of the project.

“By using field samples from both offshore Newfoundland and onshore pipelines across Canada, we hope to build a comprehensive picture that will help us understand the microbial effects on the industry,” Gieg says. “Investigators will be collecting biofilm sludge in field samples provided by the energy sector for genomic analysis.” By identifying the micoorganisms present, the study hopes to pinpoint the interactions among different microbial populations that cause pipelines to corrode and leak.

Rounding out the trio of project leads is Dr. John Wolodko, the Alberta Innovates Technology Futures Strategic Chair in Bio and Industrial Materials at the University of Alberta. He will perform the materials evaluation, testing and design.

The idea for the project, says Wolodko, came from the oil and gas industry itself. “They don’t want to spend money on replacing systems all the time. It’s a cost that trickles down to the consumer.”

In addition to being a costly problem and an environmental risk, MIC is also a major safety hazard with implications that go well beyond the oil and gas industry. The phenomenon also affects major infrastructure such as bridges and vessels – any type of product or infrastructure made with metal and exposed to the elements.

Even for the oil and gas industry, “It’s not just about pipelines,” says Gieg. “The 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.”

Practical implications are high on the investigators’ agendas and one of the project’s main goals is to integrate the results into corrosion management frameworks and standards to reduce oil spills, improve asset integrity worker safety, and environmental compliance.

Unique in its multi-disciplinary approach, Managing Microbial Corrosion in Canadian Offshore and Onshore Oil Production brings the combined expertise of genomics, electrochemistry, degradation modeling, risk assessment and management and practical applications to bear on MIC. The project leads have cited collaboration as key to the project’s success. Genomics will play a large role in facilitating the cross-disciplinary nature of the investigation.

The project’s Atlantic Canada partners include Dalhousie University, Husky Energy, Suncor Energy, LumniUltra, Petroleum Research Newfoundland and Labrador, Research and Development Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador and Mitacs.

Written with files from The Globe and Mail; U Today (University of Calgary); The Gazette (Memorial University); Genome Atlantic; and Genome Alberta.


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