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The Development of Protective Pipeline Coatings, Part 1


By Lee Wilson

This is the first in a two-part series chronicling the history of protective pipeline coatings, from the earliest coatings in ancient times to the most cutting-edge current technology. Because the topic is so vast, I’ll cover the period up until the 1980s in today’s post, then next week, I’ll revisit the topic, starting with the widespread advent of three-layer polyethylene and three-layer polypropylene systems.

Over the years, there has been much written regarding pipeline protective coatings. This topic not only continues to generate great interest, but also has left a great deal to be written upon. In this two-part post, I’ll walk you through developments through the years, the centuries and even the millennia in the world of pipeline coatings.

Ancient Coatings, Early Pipelines

The use of varnishes and enamels based on beeswax, gelatin and clay are recorded as having been used as a protective coating as early as 3000 BC. Subsequently, coatings of pitch and balsam were used as a protective coating to waterproof wooden boats as early as around 1000 BC.

Bamboo pipelines used to carry brine and natural gas were developed by the Chinese in the Zigong area of Sichuan Province around 1000 A.D. (and possibly much earlier). Each length of bamboo was cut in half, down its length (the world’s first half shell). The segment walls were removed, and the insides of the bamboo further hollowed out to create a smooth surface of constant interior diameter.

The two sections were then put back together and bonded with an adhesive coating made from lime and tung oil (the world’s first pipeline coating and caulking system). It was further bound together with twine inset into grooves in the outside surface of the bamboo pipe, to provide friction protection during pipeline operation and also mechanical protection to the coating. As recently as the 1950s, there were still more than 95 kilometers (60 miles) of the bamboo pipeline in operation in the Zigong area.

Commercial Oil Wells, Metal Pipes

It is widely believed that the use of “metallic” pipe for oil transportation started soon after the drilling of the first commercial oil well, by “Colonel” Edwin Drake, in Titusville, PA, in 1859. These pipes were mainly wrought iron; however, mass drilling, production and transportation subsequently led to the transition to the more robust steel piping—and the corrosion issues that come with it.

Drake Oil Well
By McLaurin, John J. (John James), b. 1841 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is widely believed that the use of “metallic” pipe for oil transportation started soon after the drilling of the first commercial oil well, by “Colonel” Edwin Drake, in Titusville, PA, in 1859.

Since the days of Mr. Drake, the pipeline industry has grown significantly, and subsequently we’ve seen huge developments in corrosion control technology for pipeline operations and maintenance. Today, the industry uses sophisticated controls and computer systems for corrosion management, and advanced pipe materials and corrosion-prevention techniques. However, this was not always the case.

In the 1920s, the rate of pipeline construction increased sharply, as natural gas was discovered in the Great Plains, and the need for it as a heating fuel developed in large Midwestern cities. The stimulus of increased pipe production led to significant improvements in pipe manufacturing.

The early pipeline operators became aware of the fact that corrosion of pipe buried in soil could be quite aggressive, and due to this, by the 1920s, some operators began to coat the pipe as it was being laid in the ditch, in an attempt to protect it from corrosion. The idea was to place a barrier between the pipe and the corrosive conditions in the soil, hence the term “the barrier principle.” 

A common early coating was coal tar and asphalt, which was typically applied by pouring and hand/mitt and rag application. It was a very primitive technique; however, believe it or not, it worked!

Corrosion Engineers Organize, Technology Speeds Up

NACE International was established in 1943 by 11 corrosion engineers, primarily in response to the high levels of corrosion failures reported on pipelines. (At the time, it was called the National Association of Corrosion Engineers.) The intention was reducing risk and providing standards and education on corrosion control in pipelines. This was a major boost to pipeline coating and technology, and the timing coincided with a number of breakthroughs in protective coating technology.

Over-the-ditch application of enamels and asphalts during construction continued up to the 1950s, when the first plant-applied, extruded polyethylene mainline systems were developed. This was a major advancement in coating technology, and had a huge impact upon the industry.

The pre-fabrication of fully coated spools saw a benefit and boost for production and lay; the process was recognized as an industry changer. All that was left requiring over-the-ditch coating were field joints, which would then be subject to further advancements. (We have to remember that the mainline coating protects the whole length of the steel pipe with the exception of the variable length area where the pipe is joined.)

FBE Arrives on the Scene

With the jump from liquid-based epoxy coatings (coal tars and asphalts) to polyolefin materials (polyethylene or polypropylene), the late '50s and '60s also saw the widespread use of the now-infamous FBE, or fusion bonded epoxies. These powder coatings were used either as standalone systems or as part of multi-layer system—which really gave birth to the three-layer PP and three-layer PE systems. We began to see a combination of systems: The 1960s really saw the birth of mainline coating systems.

Pipeline going into the ground
Michael Coghlan, CC BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr

As early as the 1920s, operators began to coat pipelines; the idea was to place a barrier between the pipe and the corrosive conditions in the soil, hence the term “the barrier principle.”

The benefits of FBE were apparent to all within the industry—the corrosion-protection properties of this material were excellent, with exceptional adhesion properties to the spool. (As I have stated on numerous occasions: If a coating doesn’t stick to the substrate it is intended to protect, it is of little use as a method of corrosion control.)

FBE also provided excellent flexibility properties, an answer to the failures of many previous materials due to handling and bending of the pipe spools during pipelay and subsequent cracking of the system. However, single application of FBE was only used in basic (or, should I say, “standard”) applications where environmental conditions were not as challenging or corrosive, and the terrain was not so problematic.

To compensate for this, the industry then developed the dual-layer FBE (2L FBE) system. This introduced the application of Abrasion Resistant Overcoat (ARO) and offered much greater handling and abrasion-resistance properties as compared with single-layer FBEs.

Polyethylene Coatings Emerge

Whereas the early coatings had been mostly coal-tar enamel or asphalt enamel, the 1960s and 1970s saw the increasing use of polyethylene tape coatings—two-layer extruded polyethylene coatings consisting of an adhesive base coat and a polyethylene topcoat—in addition to FBE. In the 1980s, as I’ll discuss in detail next week, three-layer systems comprised of a polyolefin (polyethylene or polypropylene) topcoat, a copolymer adhesive intermedia layer, and a fusion-bonded epoxy primer, were developed and widely utilized outside North America and the U.K.

In addition, liquid coatings such as epoxies and polyurethanes, as well as other types of coatings, were developed and used by some pipelines as a lining or a coating in order to enhance the flow characteristics of the natural gas or oil transported through the pipelines, to improve resistance against corrosion or mechanical damages associated with installations and operations of the pipelines, or to provide field rehabilitation capability. Various field joint or girth weld coating technologies were also developed to optimize performance with the mainline coating and provide field-application friendliness.     

As we are well aware, durability and integrity are key to pipeline performance, and with climate extremes and increasingly harsh operating conditions, pipe coatings have had to develop in order to meet industry challenges. Pipeline coatings are critical to the long-term performance of a pipeline and subsequently the selection of products for corrosion control should not be taken lightly.

In the early years of pipeline construction, bitumen and coal tar applied over the ditch were considered as the original “field-applied” coatings for the entire pipeline, not just the field joints. These were excellent coatings to meet the requirements for corrosion protection back then; however, we have to consider that the majority of pipelines were small bore, with far less demanding operating conditions, as opposed to more challenging contemporary operating requirements.

Next week in this space, I’ll look at developments in three-layer polyolefin coating systems and other technologies from the 1980s through the present. I’ll also discuss some of the factors that go into specifying protective coatings for pipelines, and what an inspector needs to know in order to evaluate them.


Lee Wilson

Lee Wilson, CEng, FICorr, is a NACE Level 3-certified CIP Instructor, NACE Corrosion Specialist, NACE Protective Coating Specialist and Senior Corrosion Technologist, as well as an ICorr Level 3 Painting Inspector and Level 2 Insulation Inspector. The author of the best-selling Paint Inspector’s Field Guide, Lee was named one of JPCL Top Thinkers: The Clive Hare Honors in 2012. Contact Lee.



Tagged categories: EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Engineers; Inspection; Institute of Corrosion (ICorr); Lee Wilson, CEng, MICorr; NACE; North America; Quality Control; Quality control; SSPC; Asia Pacific; Coating Materials; Corrosion; Corrosion engineering; Corrosion protection; Corrosion resistance; Latin America; Pipeline

Comment from Stephen Leigh, (7/24/2016, 5:28 AM)

Bit of history and learning at the same time good combination, great article Lee, as usual.

Comment from Douglas Iskandar, (7/28/2016, 8:08 AM)

Great article. As usual. never fail to impress.

Comment from Pranav Purani, (1/31/2017, 10:30 AM)

Excellent compilation. Great work & efforts. Very informative. Thank you

Comment from Mark Lewis, (2/1/2017, 12:49 PM)

Actually, there was an intermediate coating technology "in between" the early coal tar/asphaltic coatings and the later extruded polyethylene. A thick mix of mastic and asbestos fibers was used for a period and was known by the trade name Somastic. It was developed by Standard Oil - hence the name SOmastic. They also developed a method for field applying the product during pipe-laying operations. I've seen quite a few of these pipelines over the years and they can be difficult to cathodically protect, since the coating tends to disbond from the steel. Another drawback was that the coating had to be treated as hazardous once it was removed.

Comment from sukumar ramaiah, (7/6/2017, 1:43 AM)

Nice job man, can you make a new one for FBE briefly, because it's helpful lot of people like me.

Comment from Mario Casco, (1/19/2019, 2:20 PM)

Great review of the pipeline coatings early history. Thanks, Lee.

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