During a recent webinar detailing our world-leading LivePIPE technology, one of the key areas of interest for the attendees was how LivePIPE can help enhance leak detection on pipelines.

It is understandable why leaks are such a high priority for operators. A leak has the highest potential for environmental and financial damage – they are also incredibly difficult to detect using traditional sensor technologies.

Take the example of the December 2016 leak on the Belle Fourche Pipeline in North Dakota. An estimated 529,830 gallons of crude oil leaked in to a North Dakota creek, creating severe environmental damage in the local area – leading the Department of Health to begin proceedings to fine the operator.

The most significant aspect of this incident however, was that the leak was not discovered (and the pipeline not shut down) until around four days after the leak began. The leak was discovered by a local landowner by chance, rather than being detected by the installed electronic monitoring system.

As we recently discussed, with ageing pipeline infrastructure around the world this type of incident is a growing risk. However, the incident in North Dakota serves to highlight the weaknesses of traditional leak detection technologies.

The electronic monitoring failed because it relies on taking a baseline reading of the pipeline’s activity. Alarms are then raised when there are variations in that signature that could be attributed to a leak. However, in this instance when the pipeline was re-started to take a baseline measurement after a period of maintenance the leak was already present and therefore was not observed as an exception.

The fact is, this type of incident would not have occurred if a DAS-based system such as LivePIPE had been in place.

Rather than relying on baselines, DAS systems provide continuous monitoring. In the specific case of LivePIPE, a number of factors that are characteristic of leaks can be identified – from the initial rupture to the vibrations and strains in the soil caused by escaping fluid.

LivePIPE harnesses the acoustic signature of a leak incident and distils it into a confident alarm. As such, if LivePIPE had been in place in North Dakota the leak would have been automatically identified within minutes and located with a precision of 10 metres.

Of course at the time of this pipeline’s installation DAS wasn’t available. But there is a clear case to say that any new pipeline should have DAS installed as a matter of course to protect against leak incidents for the entire lifetime of the pipeline.

Encouragingly our webinar attendees were also keen to understand what is possible in terms of retrofitting LivePIPE on existing pipelines. While new fibre optic cable on new pipelines will give the best sensor sensitivity and accuracy, there are methods available to successfully install LivePIPE on existing pipelines. In fact, it is a major area of focus for our team and we are working hard to develop more solutions to help specifically with ageing pipelines.

Preventing leaks will continue to be a priority for operators for the foreseeable future. While it may have been a significant technological challenge in the past, DAS-based systems like LivePIPE present a huge leap forward compared to existing leak detection methods. For operators, regulators and the environment this technology must be considered essential for all pipelines.