Exploring pipeline integrity technology: a ball that listens for leaks

This week we continue our look at some of the cutting-edge technologies potentially available to the pipeline industry to aid in their commitment to pipeline safety and integrity.

At the recent International Pipeline Conference, we encountered a technology that pipeline operators could use to detect small – possibly even pinhole sized – leaks. It utilizes acoustic technology and it’s called the SmartBall.

The SmartBall is a highly sensitive, self-propelling ball, made of an instrumented aluminum core in a urethane shell. The ball features an acoustic data acquisition system that listens for leaks as it travels through the pipeline. It can be used in pipelines larger than four-inch (100 mm) diameter, and should be used as a complement to existing pipeline integrity programs or as an integrity check on non-piggable lines.

Check out this video, which illustrates the SmartBall in action:

To get the scoop on this high-tech tool, we spoke to Tim Ross, project manager at Pure Technologies, the company that developed the SmartBall.

Give us a little background on the SmartBall. Where did the technology come from?

The SmartBall tool was first developed and introduced into the water pipeline sector as a means to address the prolific quantity of treated water lost to leakage around the world and the resulting loss of revenue. It afforded the industry a more effective way of identifying and locating leaks in their pipelines. That same tool was modified and introduced to the oil and gas pipeline sector in late 2006 to address similar concerns with leakage within that industry. The oil and gas industry has a well-developed leak detection sector and the SmartBall can offer an enhanced sensitivity to detect smaller leak rates. 

Just how accurate is the SmartBall tool?

The SmartBall tool has detected leakage levels as small as 140 ml per minute on several projects around the world. This is a leakage level corresponding to little more than drops coming out of the pipeline. Locational ability is similarly impressive. Leak points can typically be identified within a few meters tolerance. 

Following potential successful large-scale field testing, the SmartBall is just one of many new and existing pipeline inspection and monitoring technologies that could receive widespread use by the pipeline industry to protect pipeline integrity. Check back next week for a look at another cutting-edge example of pipeline integrity technology.

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 110,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2011, 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.