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UCalgary, UAlberta and Memorial join forces to tackle microbial-induced pipeline corrosion

Collaborative research project receives $7.8 million of Genome Canada funding to address oil pipeline corrosion
December 8, 2016
Lisa Gieg, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary, is one of three project leaders exploring  the problem of pipeline corrosion caused by microbial activity. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Lisa Gieg, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary, is one of three project leaders exploring  the problem of pipeline corrosion caused by microbial activity. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

A collaborative research project involving four universities in Alberta and Atlantic Canada has received major funding to address the issue of pipeline corrosion caused by microbial activity.

The federal government announcement was made today by Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan in Montreal. The $7.8 million comes through the Genome Canada 2015 Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition (LSARP). It will support Managing Microbial Corrosion in Canadian Offshore and Onshore Oil Production, a four-year research project set to begin in January with an aim to improve pipeline integrity.

“This work will definitely help to pinpoint how microbial activity causes corrosion in carbon steel infrastructure and help in its early detection so we can minimize leaks,” says Lisa Gieg, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary. “It’s not just about pipelines, this 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.”

Sharing pools of expertise across Canada

Gieg is one of three project leaders, alongside John Wolodko, an associate professor and Alberta Innovates Strategic Chair in Bio and Industrial Materials at the University of Alberta; and Faisal Khan, a professor and the Vale Research Chair of Process Safety and Risk Engineering at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld. Also working on the project is Rob Beiko, an associate professor in computer science and Canada Research Chair in Bioinformatics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., and Tesfaalem Haile, senior corrosion specialist at InnoTech Alberta in Devon, Alta. Beiko will be building a database to analyse the microbiology and chemistry lab results, while Haile’s team will be working with the University of Alberta to simulate microbial corrosion in the lab and at the pilot-scale.

“To some degree, (microbial degradation of pipelines) is akin to a cancer diagnosis and treatment in the medical field,” says Wolodko. “While there is significant knowledge and best practices in diagnosing and treating cancer, it is still not completely understood, and significant research is still required to further eliminate its impact to society.

Goal: Identify and mitigate microbial corrosion globally

“While this problem is complex, this pan-Canadian project brings together research groups from across Canada in different science disciplines to tackle this problem collectively. By bringing this multidisciplinary focus to this problem, it is hoped that this research will lead to a better understanding of the breadth of microbes responsible for microbial corrosion, and will help academia and industry develop improved solutions to rapidly identify and mitigate this form of corrosion globally.”

While researchers at Memorial University are involved in all stages of the project, Faisal Khan, head of the Department of Process Engineering, and director, C-RISE, Memorial University, says the focus for Memorial is on how microbes cause corrosion. Khan leads Memorial’s multidisciplinary team, which also includes Kelly Hawboldt, Department of Process Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science; and Christina Bottaro, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science.

“We know that microbes cause corrosion, but we are examining how they cause corrosion,” said Khan. “We are identifying the chemical source and how it reacts to the surface of the metal to cause corrosion. The risk models that we’re developing will link the corrosion process to the outcome. 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.”

Corrosion costs oil and gas industry $3 billion to $7 billion each year

Corrosion of steel infrastructure is estimated to cost the oil and gas industry in the range of $3 billion to $7 billion each year in maintenance, repairs and replacement. Microbiologically influenced corrosion is responsible for at least 20 per cent of that cost.

The research team will take samples from a wide range of environments including offshore platforms and both upstream pipelines and transmission pipelines, which are all associated with different fluid chemistries and physical characteristics. By using the latest in genomics techniques, the interdisciplinary team will be able to look for trends related to specific microbes and chemistries that lead to microbial corrosion. Ultimately, the project will lead to better predictions of whether microbial corrosion will occur in a given oil and gas operation.

All three project leads say the key to success in this project is collaboration. Bringing the experience, skills and expertise from across a range of disciplines and from multiple universities provides the best opportunity to succeed in finding solutions to ensure the safety of pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure.

“Genome Alberta and Genome Atlantic are pleased to be supporting a major study that will develop technologies to proactively detect and pinpoint microbial corrosion in both offshore and onshore oil production,” notes David Bailey, president and CEO, Genome Alberta.

Grant one of 13 projects funded by federal government Thursday

“These researchers will apply their combined expertise to help address the protection of our natural environment, as well as our growing energy needs,” notes John Reynolds, acting vice-president (research) at the University of Calgary. “We look forward to working with our research partners and funders who have joined together to support this important work through this Genome Canada award.”

The grant was one of 13 projects that received funding in an announcement made by the federal government Thursday. Combined with co-funding from the provinces, international organizations and the private sector, the total announcement is worth $110 million. This includes a second project involving a University of Calgary lead to research methods of bioremediation of potential oil spills in the Arctic. All the funded projects involve emerging knowledge about genomics, or the genetic makeup of living organisms, to help address challenges in the natural resource and environmental sectors.  

The project will be managed by Genome Alberta in conjunction with Genome Atlantic, and with an international collaboration of partners that are working together to ensure safer and more secure hydrocarbon energy production:

Genome Canada, Alberta Economic Development and Trade, Research and Development Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Natural Resources Canada, InnoTech Alberta, VIA University College, University of Calgary, DNV-GL Canada, U of C Industrial Research Chair, and in-kind support from a variety of industry partners.