Fibreglass-reinforced plastic replaces steel
Thunder Bay’s FRP Systems serves mining industry across Canada
Fibreglass-reinforced plastic pipes and related process parts may not be as well known as traditional steel in the mining industry, said FRP Systems general manager Dave Farrier, but fibreglass offers advantages over steel components, including corrosion protection for many applications.
“Tell people that you build tanks, pipe, hoods and stacks out of fibreglass and they say, ‘Really? I’ve never heard of that before.’”
However, Farrier said, fibreglass can extend the life of components, in some cases by several years. For example, FRP Systems recently replaced two 12-foot by 24-foot high holding tanks at a gold mine in northwestern Ontario – one fibreglass, one steel. The stainless steel tank that was replaced was about five years old, Farrier said, while the fibreglass tank had been used for 24 years, or about five times longer.
“The stainless tank was more expensive than the fibreglass tank, too. Fibreglass is cheaper than stainless, generally speaking,” Farrier said.
Despite its rarity in the industry generally, in some mines it’s a staple. Among the latter are FRP Systems’ clients in potash mines in Saskatchewan, which use highly corrosive hot brine, and mining processes in the Sudbury area that produce sulphuric acid and sulphuric acid gas. The Thunder Bay fabricator also recently built a fibreglass electrowinning tank for a gold mine in Kirkland Lake.
FRP Systems was founded in 1979 primarily to serve the pulp and paper industry in northwestern Ontario. Back then, mining represented about 10 per cent of its business. Today, it’s around 50 per cent. FRP Systems has customers across Canada and the United States and is small enough that it can easily often accommodate special and rush orders from customers.
“We can react fairly quickly to a customer’s requirements,” Farrier said. As an example, one replacement part sitting completed on the shop floor had been ordered two weeks before when a leak was discovered, and was due to be installed the next day.
Mechanical engineers at FRP Systems are usually given designs for the components they fabricate, but they provide the expertise to calculate thicknesses and pressure ratings to ensure the final product meets operational specs.
FRP Systems also installs most of the parts they fabricate. Pipes, larger tanks and other large assemblies must be fabricated in sections, and assembling onsite requires special equipment and expertise to ensure they are fitted together properly for high-pressure applications.
Onsite inspection is also part of their business during fabrication, installation and throughout the life of the product.
Although fibreglass delays corrosion, it doesn’t completely eliminate it, so as with all process systems, regular inspections are required by a specialist familiar with fibreglass components.
The applications for fibreglass are endless: washer hoods and ventilation pipes, process pipes, scrubbers, tanks.
Essentially anything that can be fabricated using steel or stainless steel can be made from fibreglass.
Its main benefits are its anti-corrosive properties and its lower cost. Also, fibreglass does a better job of sealing a system compared to steel with its bolted connections that can leak over time. It is also easier to install than steel.
“(With steel), there’s only one way it will fit together,” Farrier said. “A fibreglass joint is shipped with trim allowance so you can trim to fit.”
The only applications that are inappropriate involve processes using hot liquid or gas above approximately 400 degrees Fahrenheit and in situations where abrasion is a concern. Fibreglass is also bulkier than steel to meet the same strength specifications, so requires a bigger footprint in some cases.
Some techniques have been refined over the years, but other than that, the process remains largely the same since the company first opened its doors. Computer modelling and computer-controlled fabrication methods represent the biggest advances in fibreglass.
“We can build a laminate using a laminate design (software) program to optimize the strength,” Farrier said. Further, that strength can be reinforced in a given direction on the X/Y axis.
Still, many mining companies have yet to learn the benefits of fibreglass.
“The mines we have (in northwestern Ontario) have typically (used) stainless, and fibreglass is just obscure to them.”