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Making a quick connection in explosive atmospheres

Published: 20 January 2020 - Michelle Lea

As automation continues to expand into diverse industrial sectors, the demand for multi-channel fibre optic cable is following suit. However, there is an increasing need for high-count, high-bandwidth fiber, capable of delivering the ever-increasing amount of data required in a single cable. This requirement is often most pressing in locations where space limitations simply won’t permit installation of extensive runs of low-count fibre, such as offshore platforms.

In addition, for sectors like oil and gas there is a considerable advantage to installing pre-terminated plug-and-play quick connectors that meet the recently-adopted international standards for explosive atmospheres. 

As an example, fibre is increasingly being used in upstream exploration and production where land-based rigs are often moved, the ability to quickly change and reconfigure fibre cables can save considerable time and costs. Also, since offshore rigs can’t afford the time and cost of helicoptering in a fibre technician every time a cable requires servicing or replacement, quick-connect/disconnect connectors save on both service and downtime.

Another situation that often requires addressing is the need to make frequent changes to fibre cable configurations or service/replace cable when equipment is damaged. The use of pre-terminated fibre cable connectors that can quickly and easily be plugged in or unplugged can be very useful in both facilitating installation and avoiding prolonged service downtime.

Avoiding explosive hazards

In both offshore and land-based natural gas and oil rigs, multi-channel high-speed fiber optic cable is required to control automation as well as monitor equipment status and communicate predictive notifications when components are in danger of failing. Such capabilities create enormous cost savings by avoiding extended downtime due to catastrophic equipment failures.

Because these hazardous locations include sites with potentially explosive atmospheres, the risk of a catastrophic event should be taken into consideration. According to organisations that establish international safety requirements, the potential for fiber optics to cause ignition of explosive atmospheres presents a real hazard.

In some cases the explosion of flammable materials causes expensive downtime and the repair and/or replacement of equipment; in others the downtime and other costs – including human lives – can be colossal. The cost of a deepwater oil rig today averages around $350 million, and the stoppage of well production can range upward to $375,000 daily.

Because the hazards of explosive atmospheres are a global concern, ATEX (Atmosphere Explosibles) and the IECEx (International Electrotechnical Commission) have issued special “directives” to establish minimum requirements for improving the health and safety of workers potentially at risk from explosive atmospheres. The potential for these standards to be more widely adopted in the future is also likely.

Identifying risks

IECEx has determined that the primary risk of running fibre optic cabling in explosive or potentially-explosive atmospheres is related to the cable connectors, the recepticals that couple fiber optic cable to an enclosure. These are described as potential ignition sources under certain conditions, or “Zones,” as determmined by ATEX.

“The primary ATEX zones where fiber optic connectors should be certified as safe are Zone 1 and Zone 2,” says Phillip Hoyle, an expert in fibre optics and product development specialist with Optical Cable Corporation (OCC). “Zone 1 is defined as a place in which an explosive atmosphere is likely to occur in normal operation. Zone 2 applies to locations where an  explosion is less likely to occur in normal operation, but if it does occur, will persist for a short period only.”

Hoyle adds that there is actually an enormous number of users that should be using certified connectors in potentially explosive atmospheres. Yet, there is a lack of available certified fiber connector solutions, particularly with high-count multi-channel options that facilitate the bandwidth that is required.

As an example, OCC recently developed the EZ-Mate Ex line of quick connectors,which provides up to 24 fibre connections in a single connector and has hazardous location protection for Zones 1 and 2.

“Having a certified fibre connectors installed in a hazardous area not only speeds up the certification process, but can also reduce time to market along with reduced testing and certification costs for the customer,” he explains.



 
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