Taking the aerial approach to leak detection research

Pipeline players announce joint partnership to evaluate aerial-based technologies

Pipeline safety research is about to go airborne – and as far as Corey Drake is concerned, the sky’s the limit.

Last week, Enbridge Pipelines Inc., TransCanada Corporation, and Kinder Morgan Canada announced a joint industry partnership to evaluate aerial-based leak detection technologies, and their possible application on crude oil and hydrocarbon liquids pipelines.

Testing and analysis will be carried out by C-FER Technologies (1999) Inc. of Edmonton, a leading-edge engineering firm with a world-class laboratory and a first-rate reputation.

This project involves a $200,000 financial commitment from each of TransCanada, Kinder Morgan, and Enbridge, and will test the boundaries of scientific innovation – because, to this point, the available technologies have not been tested on such a large scope, or such a fine detail.

“The main challenge here is that the vendor focus to date has been largely on gas pipelines. There is no ready, out-of-the-box solution for aerial leak detection on crude oil and liquids pipelines yet, as far as we know . . . and that’s what makes it so exciting,” says Drake, C-FER’s lead engineer on this aerial leak detection project, which also includes data analysis by Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures.

“We’ll need to put these technologies through some rigorous, third-party testing, and evaluate their sensors for the purpose. Collaboration with the vendors, through sharing of test results, will go a long way in advancing the technology for liquid pipeline leak detection,” adds Drake. “Once we reach the stage of full-scale testing, it will be pretty thrilling to see these technologies perform in the field, get them mounted on aircraft – and, ultimately, improve pipeline safety.”

Since the April 28 announcement, this initiative has garnered significant media interest. The project was profiled by the Edmonton Journal, C-FER executive Brian Wagg discussed the planned research during a lengthy interview with Canada's Business News Network, and a thorough article was posted by SNL Energy.

Currently, representatives of C-FER Technologies, Kinder Morgan, TransCanada, and Enbridge are determining the viability of airborne technologies for detecting small leaks from pipelines. From there, a set of suitable vendors will be determined – with project research and field trials in the Edmonton area tentatively to follow in late 2015, based on the readiness of the technologies.

Potential technologies to be tested may include infrared camera-based systems, laser-based spectroscopy systems, and flame ionization detection systems – with sensors suitable for mounting on light aircraft or helicopters.

“Enbridge puts much of its pipeline safety focus on prevention, but we’re also committed to identifying and testing new technologies in the area of leak detection,” says Tania Rizwan, a senior research engineer with Enbridge’s Pipeline Control Systems and Leak Detection (PCSLD) department.

“We’re hopeful that this aerial-based leak detection project will eventually result in another layer of public safety and environmental protection that can be used industry-wide.”

Even now, researchers on this aerial leak detection project are already benefiting from a previous piece of pipeline safety innovation developed by Enbridge and C-FER – the External Leak Detection Experimental Research (ELDER) test apparatus.

Housed at C-FER’s laboratory in Edmonton, the ELDER apparatus is currently being used to supply surface hydrocarbon readings through simulated leaks – information that will guide the project by helping to determine suitable technologies.

“We want to make sure we involve the entire spectrum of airborne technologies that may apply. We’ll use these results from the ELDER tests, in tandem with further assessment of the technologies, to develop our short list for the testing phase,” says Drake.

About 15 to 20 employees from C-FER, Kinder Morgan, Enbridge, TransCanada, and Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures, are expected to be involved through the life of the project.