Pipeline safety just got a big boost

New leak detection technology dramatically improves gas pipeline safety while reducing cost.

I attended ABB Customer World in Houston the week of March 13, which for communications people like me is always a drinking-from-a-fire-hose experience. Between the hundreds of exhibits on the show floor and the 400+ conference sessions, there’s a lot to take in and nary a minute to write about it. So, I usually come away with many pages of notes and try to distill what I saw and heard into coherent stories.

I don’t normally devote entire blog posts to product announcements—you can see those in the trade press coverage from the event and on our web site—but this one is different. In short, it will save lives.

Let me put this in context. The shale gas boom has delivered tremendous benefits to the American economy in the form of cheap fuel for heating and power generation and cheap feedstock for chemical plants and other businesses. It’s also driving a need for expansion of the pipeline systems currently operating in the US.

There’s no real alternative to pipelines when you want to move a lot of gas from one place to another. LNG only makes sense if you can take the gas to a market where the price difference covers the cost of liquefaction, transport and regasification. So, as we grow our pipeline systems, pipeline safety becomes ever more important.

All pipelines eventually leak, and that’s usually not a major problem as long as the leaks can be identified and fixed. That process relies first on the ability to detect gas in very low concentrations, far lower than our meager sense of smell can handle even with that rotten egg smell added to the otherwise odorless methane.

And so it is that, traditionally, a pipeline operator would send a field technician out to walk along a segment of pipeline with a gas-sniffing device that would indicate the presence of leaking gas. If a leak was found, a work order would ensue and repairs effected. That all sounds fine, except that the instruments in question take upwards of half an hour to self-calibrate on site and even then can only detect methane at concentrations of at least a few parts per million above the ambient baseline level of 2 ppm. And the work order process is often (gasp!) paper-based.

Enter ABB AbilityTM Gas Leak Detection System, which was formally introduced at the Houston event. This device, developed and built in the US, is capable of sensing pipeline gas in concentrations 3,000 times smaller (and many times faster) than conventional equipment. Not only that, it can operate from any number of mobile platforms—cars, aircraft, even drones—and can do its work at speeds of 55+ mph. If a leak is detected, the location and other data are immediately uploaded to the Cloud where they can be accessed by workflow applications and other enterprise systems.

I’m not an industry expert by any stretch, but the implications of such orders-of-magnitude improvement are easily understood. It means that pipeline operators can monitor more of their network, more frequently, with far greater accuracy. When they do find a leak, they can repair it faster, reducing the risk of a failure, and all of this can be done at lower cost.

I think that’s worthy of a blog post, don’t you?


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