The truth about tiny pipeline leaks

This is the fifth post in CEPA’s “pipeline innovations” blog series.

Canadians are often concerned about tiny pipeline leaks underground. How can companies detect them before they damage the environment or public safety?

“If a leak develops, it can be detected faster than it used to be and smaller than they used to be detectable,” said Marian Dudek, a senior manager at Accenture, a consulting company that helps pipeline operators utilize digital technologies to improve pipeline integrity.

In this post, we’ll explain what causes pinhole-sized leaks and tell you about some fascinating new advancements that can help prevent and detect them.

What can cause leaks in a pipeline?

Bacteria are found in everything from soil to oxygen to the product in a pipeline. These micro-organisms can cause corrosion which can result in damage to the metal.

Certain types of bacteria produce different by-products (like suphuric acid) in their processes, and these activities can result in the formation of corrosion, which can damage pipelines. This process is called microbially-induced corrosion.


Corrosion pit on a pipeline (Image source: Derek Mawhinney, corrosion engineer)

Corrosion pit on a pipeline (Image source: Derek Mawhinney, corrosion engineer)

How do pipeline companies combat this? The industry’s goal is zero incidents, and technology is helping companies drive toward that goal.

4 technologies that defend against small pipeline leaks

1. Using data to defend

Dudek explained that sophisticated data analysis can play an important role in preventing leaks. In-line inspection devices gather troves of information about the pipeline. Advanced software can evaluate this data alongside geographic information from the right-of-way to create “risk profiles” for each foot or metre of pipe.

“The risk profile combines the pipe data with the pressure profile, weather and high-risk conditions surrounding a section (of pipe),” explained Dudek.

Information on these risk profiles is updated in real-time and can be used to pinpoint areas that require additional monitoring, maintenance or immediate action to prevent an incident.

2. A camera that sees what the eye cannot 

Specialized cameras can detect evaporated hydrocarbons, that cannot be seen by the naked eye, from an area around a pipeline. This technology uses hyperspectral imaging. Hyperspectral images can show extremely low volumes and concentrations of evaporated hydrocarbons within a one-mile radius of the camera, Dudek explained.

An example of a hyperspectal imaging. (Image courtesy of Rebellion Photonics)

An example of a hyperspectal imaging. (Image courtesy of Rebellion Photonics)

Cameras can either be mounted to ground or aerial vehicles that inspect the right-of-way, or they can be placed permanently at critical locations, such as river crossings.

3. You don’t have to see a leak to sense it

Fiber optic cables installed alongside a new pipeline can help detect tiny leaks because they can sense “unexpected local changes of temperature, that can be caused by the leak of liquid that is either warmer or colder than surrounding soil,” Dudek said. He explained that fiber optics are also capable of acoustic sensing, which allows them to sense vibrations caused by flow from a pipe.

4. The pipeline product can tell a story

Advanced methods of monitoring pipeline flow and pressure can also help detect leaks. The “pressure-wave method” is one example:

Dudek explained that when a pipe has a leak a “rarefaction wave” spreads up and down the product in the pipeline. This is a tiny wave that occurs because the pressure in the pipe has been reduced.

“Just like the ripples on a still lake spread when we throw a stone,” Dudek pointed out.

Sophisticated monitoring devices and techniques can help detect these waves in a pipeline’s product.

The big picture

This post highlights some of the innovations in leak detection and prevention technologies. However, maintaining safe pipelines requires a robust system of tools and processes. Read more about how companies maintain the integrity of their pipelines.

Check out these other posts in our pipeline innovations blog series:

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 115,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2013, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Our members transport 97 per cent of Canada’s daily natural gas and onshore crude oil from producing regions to markets throughout North America.