Beijing gets new 'condom' material to help drilling in South China Sea

Scientists' material may save the country millions of yuan as it eyes increased oil and gas exploration

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 7:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 3:15pm

A new breakthrough by Chinese scientists may boost the country's exploration for oil and gas in the South China Sea.

Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have developed a plastic "condom" to help drills penetrate thousands of metres of seabed without getting damaged or stuck.

"The deep you [drill], the closer the temperature drops to freezing point," said professor Liu Zhihong, lead scientist of the project at the academy's Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology.

"When sedimentary rock interacts with the drill bits at low temperatures in water, it churns out mud as sticky as dough, which can damage or even break the drill."

Liu's team developed a power-like polymer to solve the problem.

After being added to the drilling fluid, the plastic agent can prevent "intimate contact" between rocky waste and water molecules, reducing stickiness. A protective layer is also formed around the drill head to reduce wear and tear by more than 80 per cent.

China is not the first nation to have encountered problems with deep drilling. Various chemical compounds have been developed by companies around the world to assist in such work, and have long been used by Chinese oil rigs.

But in recent years, politics and rising costs have combined to make a domestic solution desirable.

As tensions increase in the South China Sea following Beijing's rapid expansion into disputed waters, some feared that foreign sanctions could cut off supply to the drilling materials.

Without the protective material, oil and gas excavation would have to stop, Liu said.

Even without potential sanctions, the cost of the materials is exorbitant, running to around US$100,000 per ton, with a typical operation requiring at least 200 tons.

"Our material [costs] less than half that of the products currently on the market," Liu said.

Liu's team spent more than five years to bring the new material from computer models in a lab to mass production in a factory.

"We have experienced a lot of failures. What works well in theory and in the laboratory may not work in the real environment at all," he said.

The new material has been tested on more than 20 Chinese oil rigs. It will soon replace foreign products on Haiyang Shiyou 981, the country's largest oil exploration platform.

The 30,000-ton rig played a central role in an extended stand-off last year between China and Vietnam over the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by countries and believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves.