Pipeline giants seek high-tech solutions to leaks

HOUSTON — In a large green container in a climate-controlled warehouse in Canada, pipeline owners TransCanada and Enbridge are researching new ways to detect oil leaks.

The companies are using the $3 million container, which is fitted with real pipe and filled with soil, to learn how oil spreads in different environments and how quickly the newest leak detection devices can sound alarms.

The companies plan to fill the container with different soils as they progress through the tests, said Ray Philipenko, senior manager of leak detection for Enbridge, in an interview with FuelFix.

“We want to be perfect in finding all leaks,” Philipenko said.

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The leak detection devices are all in the form of cables that can be buried beside or underneath a pipeline, Philipenko said. One attempts to analyze changes in its electrical characteristics to determine whether oil has leaked.

Another device is a vapor-sensing tube that continuously moves air alongside the pipeline, Philipenko said. The tube is permeable and allows oil to seep in. Oil in the tube causes changes in the air that can be measured by sensors. The device then can create an alert about a leak and determine its probable location, Philipenko said.

The companies also are testing a fiber optic-based leak detection system that can sense changes in temperature or sound in the surrounding soil, indicating that a leak has occurred.

“There’s a higher pressure inside the pipe and that’s being released to atmospheric pressure. So that’s going to create some sort of a hiss or an acoustic signature,” Philipenko said.

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The companies plan several tests in 2014 with a goal of finding the best solutions for identifying the smallest leaks.

“Part of the initial initiative was to look at opportunities to find the small pinhole leaks which are sometimes below the detection capabilities of traditional-based systems,” he said.

The tests could lead to new detection systems used on future pipelines, Philipenko said.

“We’re hopeful that by mid-2014 that we’re able to make some good concrete decisions based on some of the results that we’re seeing,” he said.

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