The spinning edge of the grinder blade makes contact with the steel, but no sparks rain out from the edge like fireflies shot from a harvester.
If it weren’t for the sound of the compressor, you might not realize the tool in Hector Maggi’s hands was turned on.
When he’s finished, Maggi has bored a groove in a steel bar, but he immediately presses his bare fingers to it. It’s hardly even warm.
Maggi is vice president of marketing and sales for TFT-Pneumatic Industrial Tools, a Houston company that sells sparkless grinders and cutting tools for the offshore oil industry.
“Hot work” practices offshore – basically any maintenance that produces heat or other potential ignition sources – is getting increased scrutiny after an explosion last month aboard a platform in the Gulf of Mexico operated by Houston’s Black Elk Energy. Three workers died, and others were critically injured.
Black Elk’s chief executive, John Hoffman, has said the explosion on the platform, which wasn’t in operation at the time, occurred when workers were cutting a line with a torch, igniting flammable vapors in the line that, in turn, caused connected oil tanks to blow up.
Because TFT’s tools make no sparks, using them in circumstances similar to those on the Black Elk platform wouldn’t have triggered an explosion, Maggi said.
“There’s no risk of ignition,” he added.
Earlier this week, I went to TFT’s offices near the Galleria to see a demonstration and try out the tools for myself.
It would be easy, of course, to blame the workers in the Black Elk accident, but it also raises questions of whether, with the advance of technology, there’s a better way to reduce the risk of such fatal accidents.
TFT has been selling the tools, made by the Norwegian tool company Safety Tools Allmet, for the past three years. The equipment has been used for a decade in the North Sea, where safety standards are more stringent than in the Gulf, but the tools have been slow to catch on here, in part because they’re much more expensive than conventional tools.
“We’re fighting against 50 years of doing things the same way,” Maggi said. “It’s really frustrating. It doesn’t need to be like this.”
TFT’s biggest U.S. customer is BP, which began using the tools on its Thunder Horse and Mad Dog platforms in the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, Maggi said. A BP spokesman declined to comment.
Other major customers include Chevron and BHP Billiton, which uses the tools not just in oil production but also in its mining operations, Maggi said.
Unlike conventional cutting tools, which use composite disks that create friction as they chew through metal or other surfaces, TFT’s tools use a tungsten-carbide surface with a fanlike pattern of “teeth.” The tools spin at fewer revolutions per minute – about 1,000, compared with 15,000 for a conventional grinder – and chip away at the surface in a process that’s more like a milling machine than a cutting tool.
The process creates less friction, and therefore less heat. The surface being cut rarely gets hotter than about 70 degrees, Maggi said, compared with as much as 2,000 degrees for conventional grinders.
Rather than shards of red-hot metal shooting as much as 18 feet from the cutting surface, the sparkless tools leave filings that are almost a dust and fall less than a foot from the cutting area.
The cost isn’t cheap, which has scared away some companies. A single grinder disk runs about $6,000, compared with about $3 for a conventional one that you could find a most hardware stores.
The full system runs about $45,000.
Despite the huge cost difference, Maggi said the benefits are worth it. The tools aren’t classified as “hot work,” so using them doesn’t require special permits or the temporary shutdown of a facility, which can cost millions of dollars a day in lost revenue.
Even more important, they won’t ignite residual hydrocarbons that may linger in old pipelines or storage tanks.
The Black Elk accident ought to be a reminder that the industry can’t rest on its history in addressing offshore safety. It may be possible to improve safety in the Gulf one tool at a time.