The detection of pipeline leaks is a critical function to maintaining optimal operational performance and regulatory compliance. In today’s energy-intensive environment, the use of pipelines is a matter of safely and reliably transporting the world’s most vital resources. Pipelines have proven to be the safest mode to transport oil and gas in part due to enhanced construction and welding techniques combined with continuous advancement of the latest leak detection technologies.

Approximately 70 percent of all petroleum and crude products are moved via pipeline, according to the Manhattan Institute. Additionally, with millions of miles of auxiliary oil and gas pipelines and pipe networks spanning throughout the U.S., leak detection systems (LDS) are a crucial component of ensuring all products are delivered safely, on time and in the most minimal, environmentally invasive way possible.

Previous methods of detecting leaks relied heavily on human intervention and calculating pressure drops to determine if and where a pipeline may be leaking. While these methods offer valuable detection techniques, pipeline operators today are moving toward digitized processes that involve wireless electronic systems as well as more complete integrity management systems to provide a higher level of pipeline safety and leak prevention.

“Leak detection methods of the future will be much less reactive in their scope.”

Wireless on-site analytics communication

Operators install miles of electrical wires alongside pipelines during the construction process, which can detect changes in temperature or pressure. These currents are relayed back to a control center, alerting of a potential leak. However, wired leak detection systems are more susceptible to extraneous interference from outside factors that can damage or affect the alarm trigger.

According to a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, pipeline operators frequently face false alarms whereby the sensors are hypersensitive and sometimes incapable of differentiating between certain signals. To overcome this challenge, the use of wireless, remote and acoustic technologies are becoming more prevalent.

By placing advanced transducers at both ends of the pipeline reverberations from a potential rupture or leak in the pipeline walls are detected in seconds. Pipelines International noted that once damage to the pipeline occurs, hydraulic transients travel through the pipeline’s liquids at the speed of sound in each direction until it is picked up by sensors. Engineers and technicians are then able to calculate the distance traveled by the sound waves and identify the specific location of the leak.

By integrating this type of technology with sonic testing, multimodal dual sensors, GPS antennas and a central monitoring system, on-site data collection and communication is available within seconds along the entire length of the pipeline. While these types of leak detection systems are currently being implemented to some degree, they will likely be more common in the near future.

With real-time digital signal processing (DSP), leaks can not only be detected, but engineers can also begin to analyze compiled data to develop trend measures and predictive indicators that allow for greater technical assurance. Leak detection methods of the future will be much less reactive in their scope and rely more on controlling and preventing pipeline damage before it starts.

Oil and gas workers have more tools at their disposal to prevent pipeline leaks.



Comprehensive pipeline integrity management systems

While wireless systems will be a cornerstone of leak detection, so too will comprehensive pipeline integrity solutions be offered by service providers.

A report from TechSci Research indicated material failure and corrosion were the primary causes of pipeline leaks, and by 2019 a larger number of pipeline operators will shift toward systems based on pressure and flow monitoring, fiber-optic sensors and infrared leak detection.

Because leak detection methods are largely responsive systems that are reactive in nature, other segments of pipeline safety rest on the hands-on work of pipeline inspectors and pipeline integrity testing. For example, direct assessments (DA) of stress corrosion cracking (SCC) will continue to be invaluable in the future as operators work to minimize the damaging impact of harsh, corrosive elements.

Corrosion has the capacity to weaken pipelines and their components, leading to more than just pinhole leaks. Full-scale ruptures and component failures need to be protected against and prevented before they become serious safety issues. In-line inspections, hydrostatic testing and integrity verification programs can locate weaknesses that operators may not have been aware of, which is an important step to ensure the mechanical strength and durability of pipelines.

The analysis of risk factors and evaluation of threats before they become risks – will provide the framework for which oil and gas companies maintain the operational capability of pipelines. The development of integrity management plans with a focus on defect detection, assessment and risk-ranking algorithms can serve as actionable plans for operators to utilize now and in the future. As operators are able to interpret, understand and implement data from these assurance services, they can formulate their own unique leak prevention solutions and mitigate environmental hazards.

As a global technology leader committed to asset integrity solutions with high quality, safety and flexibility, Applus+ prides itself on meeting even the most complex challenges with reliable and efficient service. Having delivered non-destructive testing, inspection support and engineering analysis for more than 1,300 pipeline projects, onshore and offshore, Applus is prepared to work in close partnership with operators and owners in order to maintain their operational efficiency while ensuring minimum risk to people, assets and the environment.