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Pipeline Materials Research (Ask NRCan)


Host: Welcome everyone to another episode of “Ask NRCan.” This is a podcast series where we discuss a topic relating to the work that we do here at Natural Resources Canada (or NRCan for short).

So what we do is we introduce a topic, we discuss it with one of our NRCan experts, and then we look to you to continue the conversation over social media.

At the end of the episode, if you have any questions on today’s topic, we strongly encourage you to go on Twitter and tweet at us using the hashtag “#AskNRCan.” Our expert will do his or her best to answer all relevant questions.

Sounds good? Ok, on with the show …

In our last episode we talked about pipelines in Canada, and it was mentioned that NRCan is involved in pipelines-related research. So today we’re going to dive deeper into that subject. NRCan has multiple laboratories across the country that work on a variety of research linked to natural resources – everything from explosives testing to energy research and development. Two of these labs – one in Hamilton and one in Calgary – are conducting research that focuses on advanced materials for pipeline use. Joining us today is Philippe Dauphin, Director General of CanmetMATERIALS.

Philippe, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Philippe: Thanks, it’s a pleasure to be talking about pipeline safety and materials for pipelines.

Host: So my first question to you is why is pipelines materials research necessary? From what I’ve read, and this is something that I’m quoting here from our website, 99.999 percent of oil transported over federally regulated pipelines moves safely. So I guess my question is, why do we need this kind of research?

Philippe: The first thing I’d like to do is put the 99.999 percent in perspective. 99.999 percent means you would have a five-minute power outage in one year. So for 1.4 billion barrels – that’s the quantity of oil that’s transported in Canada – less than 400 barrels are spilled in a year. That can be in a variety of events. Now, because you have good track record doesn’t mean you should be stopping, and an example I’d like to use and I like to use in my day-to-day life, is that of seatbelts in cars. Seatbelts have been saving lives for years and years and yet automakers keep doing research to build better seatbelt systems with pre-tensioning and more airbags and saving even more lives and that’s one of the reasons why we’re doing more research on materials for pipelines.

Host: Perfect. That makes a lot of sense. So how does CanmetMATERIALS specifically contribute to pipeline safety through the research that you do?

Philippe: Well, we have three main objectives. The first objective is to develop new materials and new technologies to make pipelines safe. So, for instance, we can develop line pipe steels, so steels that are used to make pipelines, that are high toughness, so that they can resist fracture more readily. With pipelines that are going to be transporting more material, they can withstand those higher pressures that they’re going to be operating at. There are also strategies to deal with corrosion and cracking issues, which are the main reasons why pipelines fail. And, finally, optimal design for pipelines that may encounter ground movement. You may have heard of freeze-thaw that’s the cause for potholes on roads or for your fence to be popping out of the ground. Well, imagine the ground moving around a pipeline and then putting a bend into it – so you want to have materials that will resist those movements in the ground as the frost and the thaw cycles occur year after year.

The second main objective is that we have to provide unbiased and scientifically credible information for regulatory organizations. From time to time, the National Energy Board will touch base with us and ask us about a technical issue they’ve dealt with or we will suggest a new standard that they could apply to help make pipelines safer.

The third one is a bit related to this one, and it is to enhance public confidence in our energy infrastructure – so to reassure the public that pipelines are being operated safely and that we’re doing all we can to keep making them safe and even safer in future.

Host: Fair enough. CanmetMATERIALS has been around since the 1940s. What are some of the major accomplishments from your lab?

Philippe: In pipelines, we’ve developed new standards and modified existing standards. One example is called the crack-tip opening angle standard. It assesses the fracture toughness of steel. Big words, but what it means is that when a fracture starts opening in a gas pipeline, if the steel is not tough enough, the fracture could run for hundreds of metres at very high speeds. Fractured toughness is the measure of how the steel itself is able to stop the progression of that fracture. The crack-tip opening angle test is now recognized internationally by the American Society for Testing and Materials as the standard to assess that fracture toughness. It’s a cost-effective way for labs to measure fracture toughness on those steels.

Another one is the test that’s called the “maximum flaw size in welds.” When a pipeline is welded, there will be defects in the weld; flaws. When they’re small enough they will not affect the performance of the pipeline. But we have to determine from engineering standards when a flaw is just too big for it to be tolerable and to be left there. And so we’ve developed an engineering method to assess when a flaw is too big, and then the weld would have to be re-done.

The third one that I’d like to attract your attention to is a standard on field-applied coatings. All pipelines are buried in the ground, and when the pipe is produced it is coated with something to protect the outside from corrosion. When you assemble the pipeline in the fields, the sections that you weld cannot be coated – so people weld those sections together and, after that, will field-apply a coating, and we have to know that the coating that’s selected will be compatible with the coating that was applied in plant and also with a steel that is in the field, so that the coating forms a tough barrier against water and the elements, thus protecting the pipeline.

Host: That’s very interesting research. What’s next for your team going forward?

Philippe: We need to continue improving all the time and develop and implement the best technologies available to make our pipeline infrastructure safe. One of the things we need to do is learn, when there is a failure, learn from it. What were the causes so that we can develop better materials, better production methods, better management methods, so that we avoid a similar rupture in the future.

There’s also still 22,000 kilometres of the 73,000 kilometres of federally regulated pipelines that are older than 30 years old. So we need to learn how we continually improve how we assess the safety of these pipelines so that they can continue to operate. Typically, a pipeline should operate for 50, even 75 years. Finally, we need to understand issues and challenges that the industry faces and develop new solutions. That will all contribute to better decision making by making sure that regulators in the government have the best available technology on which to base decisions.

Host: Thank you, Philippe, for taking the time to sit down with us and shed some light on this topic. We really appreciate it.

Now is the point in the episode where we ask you to continue the conversation over social media. If you have any questions for Philippe, or if you have comments on this episode, we’d like you get on Twitter and tweet at us using the hashtag “AskNRCan.”

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about this subject, we encourage you to visit our Science@NRCan website at and look for the article on pipeline research. We’ll have links to any relevant material. And while you’re there, take the time to browse our site. We have tonnes of interesting information for you. We have previous podcast episodes, articles, scientist profiles and we even our Science at Work video series that showcases the science we do here at NRCan and the impact it has on the lives of Canadians.

This concludes this episode of Ask NRCan. Thank you for joining us today. We look forward to hearing from you, and we’ll see you next time.

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