Extensive training for onsite facility personnel is one of the key strategies for limiting ignition sources at oil and gas sites. A Houston-based company is trying to build on this approach by making the tools site personnel use safer.
"These tools could have prevented most events where a grinder or torch was the source of ignition for an explosion," said Hector Maggi, vice president of marketing and sales with TFT-Pneumatic, LLC, which sells "sparkless" power tools to customers in the oil and gas and other industries.
Maggi said the tools use grinding disks, cutting disks and rotating files made from a proprietary alloy containing 95 percent tungsten carbide (WC). Although WC typically produces sparks when it grinds, cuts or files another metal, TFT-Pneumatic maintains that its blend of WC and other components does not.
"This alloy is as unique as can be and holds one of the biggest secrets of our technology," Maggi said. "As of today, no other company in the world has been able to come up with something similar."
Maggi is keeping the non-WC composition of the alloy a secret, but he did divulge that his company's products differ from more traditional tools in terms of speed and shape. On the first count, he explained that TFT's grinders and cutting tools rotate at speeds of 800 to 3,000 revolutions per minute (rpm) rather than the more conventional 7,000 to 30,000 rpm.
"The principle is very simple," Maggi said. "Our tools simulate the work of a milling machine rather than a grinder."
In addition to rotating more slowly, the Houston-based company's tools apply cutting disks, grinding disks and rotating files that are shaped in a manner to generate less heat metal-on-metal.
"By minimizing friction we are able to minimize heat and thus sparks, therefore eliminating completely the risk of explosion," said Maggi. He noted that sparkless tools are well-suited for applications throughout the oil and gas value chain, particularly in areas classified as Hazardous/Explosive (Class 1 Divisions 1 and 2).
"The applications are so vast that a very large percentage of grinding and/or cutting can be achieved by our tools," Maggi said.
One drawback of the sparkless tools is their high relative cost. A company wishing to purchase the specialized equipment can expect to spend anywhere from roughly $2,300 for a single grinder to approximately $48,000 for a complete five-tool set with 10 attachments.
"The cost of the tools and files/disks is indeed higher when compared directly to their conventional counterparts," Maggi said. "However, when used for the right application and in the proper environment they are not only very affordable but actually cheaper."
Maggi explained the considerably lower amount of heat that the sparkless tools generate eliminate the need to obtain hot work permits that are commonplace for offshore, refining, petrochemical, maritime and other applications. He cited as an example a common application on offshore oil and gas platforms: preparing a metal surface for painting to repair corrosion and surface damage.
"In order to achieve an anchor profile for the paint you would need to remove the paint and create such profile by means of ultrahigh-pressure or a sandblaster," Maggi said. "Both are considered hot work tools and require permits. You would need to bring the sand by boat, a crane would have to be available to bring it to the platform and then you would need to cover compressors, turbines, glass and specially close the area down for the operators to be able to work. This applies to surfaces big or small."
"Once that has been done you need to pick up the sand and dispose it," Maggi continued. "Large quantities of sand and fresh water are required for both processes. [The] cost is quite high -- actually much higher than our tools if you add the hidden costs associated with all of these."
In contrast, Maggi said that a suitcase containing a full sparkless tool set weighs approximately 40 pounds and could be shipped to the platform by helicopter or boat.
"Open the case, attach the file or disk to the tool and grind," he said. "When you are done you simply remove the file or disk from the tool and move to another job."
TFT sells its sparkless tools but also rents them at a daily rate ranging from $130 to $700 (the daily rate slides downward as the rental period increases).
Although the economics of sparkless tools are an important consideration, Maggi emphasized that worker safety in hazardous areas is the primary driver behind the technology.
"Taking into consideration that our utmost goal is safety, we will have done our job even if a single life is saved by assuring that people know the risks associated with working in classified areas," Maggi concluded.
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