Can DAS Monitoring Support Green Hydrocarbon Production?

As the world’s nations get to grips with combatting climate change and meeting Glasgow Climate Pact commitments (pledged during COP 26), energy companies are bringing new, ambitious renewable strategies to the mix. A leader in this playing field is bp – which has acquired 40% of Australia’s Pilbara Renewable Energy Project, as announced in June 2022. In addition, bp has revealed its plan to operate the Asian Renewable Energy Hub, which has the potential to generate up to 26GW of wind and solar energy plus 1.6 million tonnes of green hydrocarbon per year.

Fotech is part of the bp Launchpad portfolio – and we share bp’s commitment to the future of renewable energy. This is reflected in our strategy to grow our DAS asset monitoring technology for the renewable energy sector. We are currently focused on products and services including offshore wind cable monitoring. But we maintain a keen interest in the progress of all renewable energy strategies. So, in this article, we’re taking a closer look at exactly what green hydrocarbon is, its role in achieving deep decarbonization of the world’s energy system, and how DAS fibre optic sensing technology can help to protect precious renewable energy during the vital pipeline transportation process.

What is Green Hydrocarbon Energy and How is it Made?

As WindEurope’s CEO, Giles Dickson, rightly points out: “The more we can electrify in the energy sector, the cleaner our consumption will be. And what we can't electrify needs to be decarbonised with other low-carbon sources such as green hydrogen.” (Windpower Monthly, June 2021). The key concern here is – what we can’t electrify. Renewable electricity is undoubtedly a crucial component of solving the climate change versus human consumption conundrum. But some areas of modern life simply cannot be powered by electricity alone. Processes such as aviation flight, or industrial manufacturing, for example, demand extremely high heat conditions that electricity cannot generate. And, in the move away from finite fossil fuels, green hydrocarbon offers one of the cleanest alternative fuel sources to achieve those combustion temperatures.

In fact, there are a number of forms of hydrogen gas – ranging from brown hydrogen (produced from coal or lignite), through grey hydrogen (made by steam methane reformation) – and blue hydrogen. The latter is produced in the same way as grey hydrogen – but carbon emissions are safely removed from the environment through Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (we recently explored the role of DAS Technology in safeguarding CCU pipeline transportation).  Beating all of these in the emission-free stakes, though, is green hydrogen. This version is produced by electrolyzing water – in other words, applying an electric current to water to split it into pure hydrogen and oxygen. The resulting hydrogen can then be converted into green hydrocarbon – which can be stored and transported in liquid fuel form by combining it with carbon monoxide (CO).

The electrolyzing process can, potentially, be entirely powered by renewable energy. Given that the cost of renewable energy has dropped by 40% over the past decade, the business, economic and environmental case for green hydrogen and hydrocarbon becomes even stronger.

Navigating the Logistics of Green Hydrogen Transportation – Where do Pipelines Fit?

Whilst green hydrocarbon as a liquid fuel is suitable for pipeline transportation, piping pure green hydrogen in its gaseous form presents more of a challenge. As America’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy points out, only 1,600 miles of hydrogen pipeline infrastructure currently exists in the USA (compared to 305,000 miles of natural gas pipelines, and 190,000 miles of liquid fuel pipelines). Transporting gaseous hydrogen via pipelines could, in fact, be a cost-effective option once the infrastructure is built – but expanding that pipeline network from its current relatively low level demands significant capital commitment on a macro scale.

What’s more, there are technical concerns around pipeline transportation of gaseous green hydrogen, identified by the aforementioned Office of Energy and Renewable Energy as:

The potential for hydrogen to embrittle the steel and welds used to fabricate the pipelines.

The need to control hydrogen permeation and leaks.

The need for lower cost, more reliable, and more durable hydrogen compression technology.

Whilst DAS Asset monitoring technology cannot solve the infrastructure challenges of green hydrogen transportation, it does potentially have a vital role to play in monitoring and safeguarding hydrogen pipelines against damage and leaks as the pipeline infrastructure develops.

How can Distributed Acoustic Sensing Monitor a Green Hydrogen or Hydrocarbon Pipeline?

If you’re a regular reader of Fotech’s blog, you’ll be familiar with how DAS acoustic pipeline monitoring works. In short, the DAS interrogator unit (in Fotech’s case, Helios® DAS) sends thousands of pulses of light down the fibre optic cables typically co-located with pipelines, reflecting a proportion of that light back to the unit in the form of Rayleigh Backscatter. Any disturbances that generate vibrations along the pipeline (and hence the fibre optic cable) are observed by the interrogator and reported to the corresponding alarm server.

What differentiates systems, though, is not the core principle of fibre optic data sensing. It is the specific build and configuration of a DAS system that defines its sensitivity and reliability. In Fotech’s case, our proprietary system, LivePIPE II®, deploys highly sophisticated algorithms and cutting edge machine learning to not only detect, but analyse the nature of any disturbance along the line. It pinpoints the location within metres, determines the likely cause within minutes, and reports the results to the operator within seconds. Crucially, LivePIPE II® also learns from the data as it analyses. This results in an intelligent early pipeline warning system that enables operators to locate and understand the source of the disturbance more efficiently and accurately than with other, traditional monitoring systems.

The Panoptes alarm server is equally advanced, issuing red/amber/green warnings to define the urgency of the situation, and integrating with other proprietary monitoring systems that the operator may be running. Operators may also choose to integrate EDAM – Fotech’s Enhanced Data and Acoustic Management platform. This gives them the ability to record data segments over a targeted period, play the data back, establish where key risk parameters may lie, and evolve their pipeline monitoring strategy accordingly.

In fact, the American Petroleum Institute recently introduced a major milestone in DAS Technology by revising two of its key industry standards to include DAS monitoring for the first time. This is a significant step forward for enhancing oil & gas pipeline safety across the industry. But it also points to the growing significance of DAS in developing the future of renewable energy – through protecting CCU pipelines, renewable energy cabling infrastructure and – in the future – green hydrogen and green hydrocarbon pipelines. Fotech is excited to be stepping up as part of the supply chain for the renewable energy revolution. And we are already gearing up to develop our technology even further to meet the future needs of pipeline and energy operators as they embrace their role in a cleaner, greener planet.

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