How to Make Bitumen 'Glide' Through a Pipeline

How to Make Bitumen 'Glide' Through a Pipeline
Coating technology would enable crude bitumen to "slide effortlessly" through a pipeline, says developer.

Exhibiting a viscosity akin to "cold molasses" at room temperature, as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers puts it, the crude bitumen that is separated from oil sands must be heated, upgraded or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons into "dilbit" before it can be shipped via pipeline. A Massachusetts-based company contends that its coating technology would make crude bitumen pipeline-ready, rendering heating, upgrading or dilution unnecessary before shipping.

"Because our coating technology platform is so flexible, we can make everything from bitumen to condiments flow easily – some coatings will be designed to withstand the harsh operating conditions in oil pipelines, and others will be applied to packaging of consumer products, including foods," noted Dave Smith, CEO and co-founder of LiquiGlide Inc., which is marketing various formulations of a permanently wet liquid-impregnated coating invented at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

"Because we’re able to create our coatings from such a wide variety of materials, our custom solutions can be designed to meet the specifications of a multitude of applications – everything from edibility to total immiscibility," continued Smith.

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The components of LiquiGlide's coating technology. SOURCE: LiquiGlide Inc.

Smith recently discussed his company's plans for its "LiquidGlide" coating technology. Read on for his insights, including how he likens the technology to a major invention from thousands of years ago.

Not Just for Pipelines

LiquiGlide initially created its eponymous liquid-impregnated coating to ease the flow of methane hydrates in subsea pipelines, but the company envisions additional applications beyond enabling the flow of crude bitumen in onshore pipelines. Some proposed applications outside of the oil and gas industry include:

  • improving the flow of condiments in food packaging
  • decreasing the risk of clogging inside medical tubing
  • preventing the buildup of ice on power lines and airplane wings
  • increasing the efficiency of water desalination

Unlike a conventional superhydrophobic surface technology whose highly textured surface creates a cushion of air upon which a product sits, LiquiGlide comprises a highly textured solid surface impregnated with a liquid to create a permanently wet surface, according to the company. "The product is actually sliding on our liquid layer, on a liquid-to-liquid interface," states LiquiGlide Inc.'s website.

DownstreamToday: Please briefly describe your LiquiGlide coating technology. What was the inspiration for the technology, and how does it differ from other hydrophobic coatings?

Dave Smith: LiquiGlide is not a single material. Instead, each LiquiGlide coating combines a textured solid layer and a liquid that is held in place by capillary forces. The result is a permanently wet slippery surface that enables viscous liquids to slide effortlessly.

Each unique LiquiGlide coating is custom-designed for each specific application, and the choices for solids and liquids number in the thousands, and are selected for the properties they display in experiments with different viscous liquids.

When Professor Kripa Varanasi and I co-invented LiquiGlide, we were trying to solve the problem of methane hydrate build-ups in oil and gas pipelines by using liquid-impregnated, slippery surfaces at the Varanasi Research Group lab at MIT. We had some success in this area and began thinking about other possible applications, including packaging problems for sticky consumer goods like ketchup and honey.

LiquiGlide’s technology is different from traditional superhydrophobic surfaces because those solutions don’t create a permanently wet surface; instead their “lotus leaf” effect is created via trapped air. Their slippery effect is only temporary.

DownstreamToday: Currently, crude bitumen is diluted as dilbit so that it can flow through pipelines. Is it your claim that applying your LiquiGlide coating to the interior walls of a crude oil pipeline would eliminate the need for dilbit?

Smith: Yes. LiquiGlide’s coatings can enable even the stickiest of viscous materials to move easily across surfaces. We create a liquid-to-liquid interface between our coating and the viscous liquid, reducing drag. Materials that would otherwise be impossible or impractical to transport could be pushed through LiquiGlide-coated pipes with much less effort. For bitumen, that means it wouldn’t need to be diluted, upgraded or heated.

DownstreamToday: Can LiquiGlide be applied to existing pipelines or is it meant for new construction? If it can be applied to existing pipelines, does it require any specialized training, technology, etc.?

Smith: We plan on applying the coating solution to both existing and new construction pipelines. For existing pipelines, we’re exploring the use of pigging to apply the coating.

DownstreamToday: Aside from improved flow, does your technology provide any other benefits such as improved corrosion resistance?

Smith: LiquiGlide’s primary benefit in oil and gas applications is improving the flow of viscous liquids. By enabling thick liquids to flow easier, less energy is required to move the material. We’ve demonstrated that the coatings can also reduce the rate of corrosion and reduce the formation of scaling and hydrates at lab scale. 

DownstreamToday: Has LiquiGlide been applied to any operating pipelines, or are there any plans to do so?

Smith: Not yet. At lab scale, LiquiGlide’s coatings are extremely effective in preventing the crystal structure build-ups, and enable very heavy crude oil to easily slide. We are currently exploring strategic partnerships in the oil and gas industry.

DownstreamToday: What potential impact do you envision for your technology on the oil sands and oil pipeline sectors?

Smith: By improving energy efficiency and eliminating clogs, we can help oil and gas companies save millions in energy costs. In the next five years, LiquiGlide will have an impact on industries across the board, eliminating waste and enabling innovative uses of viscous liquids. What the wheel was to transportation, we believe LiquiGlide is to liquids – it changes how liquids move.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Click here for a video demonstrating how crude oil responds to a sheet of metal coated with the technology.)



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