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Harnessing DAS Photonics to Reduce Carbon Footprint

Modern society is full of complex challenges – but there is one issue that affects every one of us, and that is the health of the natural world around us. So, it’s hardly surprising that all eyes were on the United National Climate Conference of the Parties (COP26) when it came to the UK in 2021. The resulting Glasgow Climate Pact represents an agreement by the United Nations to turn the 2020s into a decade of accelerated climate action and support. Key targets include building resilience to climate change, curbing greenhouse emissions, providing the necessary financing for both, and channelling funding from developed to developing nations to level the climate protection playing field.

This, of course, is welcome news. However, it also represents a significant challenge for water, oil & gas pipeline operators. The most obvious conundrum they face is how to protect these precious natural resources from wastage caused by leaks, theft, and pipeline damage. But, safeguarding pipeline networks whilst also reducing carbon footprint is a massively complex task. Increasingly, operators are harnessing the capabilities of advanced DAS (distributed acoustic sensing) technology to tackle the issue.

The power of DAS Technology to automate pipeline monitoring

The logistical difficulty of monitoring and maintaining pipeline infrastructure is in no small part down to the nature and location of these assets. Global supply of oil, gas and water depends on huge networks of pipelines, typically spanning remote and hostile environments, that cannot be reached or monitored without significant travel and excavation disruption – both of which, in themselves, increase carbon emissions and risk harming the geophysical environment and living species around us.

The good news is that advances in DAS monitoring technology are powering new and increasingly effective strategies to automate pipeline monitoring. DAS fibre optic monitoring harnesses the vast quantities of sensing data that a fibre optic cable produces, every minute of every day. Typically, those fibre optic cables run alongside the pipeline and hence detect any disturbance that occurs along the line. When configured with the right AI and machine learning capabilities,  are capable of generating rich insights into the location, nature and severity of a pipeline or cable breach or damage. And that equips operators to streamline and continuously improve their asset monitoring strategies - with both the environment and their commercial bottom line in mind.

Using distributed fibre optic sensing to protect natural resources

Let’s return to the Glasgow Climate Pact for a moment. In the context of COP26, the question for pipeline and cable operators is essentially: how can we deliver on COP26 pledges, whilst also remaining commercially viable and providing goods and services that are essential to today’s way of life?

A carbon footprint reduction strategy naturally starts with conservation. In its report, Water Distribution Efficiency, Project Drawdown illustrates the importance of water conservation both environmentally and financially. Water utilities, the report says, are amongst the biggest energy consumers globally, representing about 1% of the total electricity used worldwide. Up to 80% of this energy is consumed through pumping alone.   Yet, the World Bank estimates that 8.6 trillion gallons of water are lost annually through leaks. Project Drawdown has calculated that minimising water pipeline leakage has the potential to reduce CO2 production by between 0.66 and 0.94 gigatons in the next thirty years.

When it comes to oil & gas, whilst the total volume of pipeline spills is thought to be decreasing, the statistics remain concerning. According to Statista, in the US alone, there were a total of 578 pipeline incidents reported in a single year. Of course, long term COP26 commitments aim to move us away from fossil fuels altogether – but, right now, these fuels remain vital socially and economically across the globe. Conserving them must be an urgent priority – as must safeguarding against the environmental harm that leaks can cause.

Three applications of DAS pipeline monitoring technology to reduce carbon footprint

All of the evidence above points to pipeline leak detection as an essential strategy for reducing carbon emissions and pollution caused by pipeline spills. Leak detection methods such as line walking, aerial surveillance and SCADA systems have been utilised by pipeline operators for many years. But, given the cost of pipeline spills to the environment around us, it is critically clear that pipeline monitoring systems need to evolve to meet the morphing challenge.

Three strategic areas must be considered: Speed, accuracy, and intelligence. The right DAS pipeline monitoring system, correctly configured with the right machine learning to enhance the raw photonic data, is able to deliver all three.

Speed of detection: Although the standard leak detection parameter of one percent of a pipeline’s flowrate might seem small, in reality a leak at this level can represent a loss of 1,000 barrels of oil a day. A delay of just a few hours can cause oil, gas or water wastage that we simply cannot accept, given today’s environmental concerns (not to mention the cost to pipeline operators, who stand to lose millions from even the smallest leak). DAS leak detection technology, such as Fotech LivePIPE II®, has the ability to detect leaks as small as 20 litres per minute, from pipeline breaches as small as 1mm in diameter. It can then raise the alarm within just 90 seconds. This equips the operator to address previously undetectable leaks as rapidly as possible, potentially preserving millions of barrels of oil, cubic feet of natural gas, or litres of water.

Accuracy of location: Whilst pipeline leaks must be detected and fixed quickly, the very business of pinpointing the leak can in itself cause environmental harm. Travelling vast distances to reach the pipeline in itself requires heavy fuel consumption. Helios DAS®, combined with the artificial intelligence of the Panoptes alarm server, has the ability to pinpoint even the smallest leak location to within metres. In some cases (for instance an attempt to “hot tap” a pipeline) travel can be mitigated entirely – for example by sending a UAV drone to warn off perpetrators. And, where a leak does require manual repair, removing the need to excavate potentially miles of pipeline just to find the leak reduces the risk of unnecessary damage to the environment – and to the species that make their habitats in that environment.

Depth of intelligence: Crucially, though, it is the ability to enhance understanding of the likely cause and severity of pipeline spills that distinguishes distributed acoustic sensing. In the case of LivePIPE II®, the combination of the Helios DAS® interrogator and the machine learning capabilities of the Panoptes alarm server produces rich insights. Every unique acoustic signature is analysed to determine not just the location, but the likely cause of the pipeline disturbance. False positives can be identified, reducing unnecessary responses and the associated fuel and excavation costs. Repair teams can attend the site already armed with intelligence on the exact location and probable cause of the leak, so that repairs are faster and less obtrusive. Data can even be gathered, recorded, played back by Fotech’s EDAM platform for deeper insights into historical trends over time.  

More on DAS Pipeline Monitoring Technology

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