Research driving continuous improvements in pipeline safety in Canada

With a safety record of 99.999 per cent of products in CEPA member pipelines delivered safety to their destinations, the Canadian energy transmission pipeline industry is a stand-out among its global peers.

And that’s in part due to outstanding research efforts by some of Canada’s leading post-secondary institutions. The University of Calgary (UofC) and University of British Columbia (UBC) are two Canadian universities at the forefront of research to address some of the pipeline industry’s most important challenges.


Collaboration across disciplines


Now in its 16th year, the Pipeline Engineering Centre (PEC) at UofC’s Schulich School of Engineering was established to bring together pipeline research activities and foster collaboration among all engineering departments. Today the PEC is fulfilling its mandate with cross-discipline research to improve processes and technologies that can be applied in almost every part of the pipeline life cycle – from construction to de-commissioning.

Dr. Ron Hugo is the PEC’s Director. He can point to an extensive list of ongoing projects that focus on what he calls ‘health monitoring and sensing technologies’. In other words, these projects look at how innovative technologies can help pipeline systems’ operators identify potential threats before incidents occur.

“Pipeline systems are so very massive, yet the defects that we try to detect can be very small. That’s why the sensor projects sometimes involve nanotechnology and work at the micro-mechanical scale,” explains Dr. Hugo. “These sensing systems can detect even small anomalies on the pipe or in the air, which can amount to early detection of a potential incident.”


Tools to make timely, fact-based decisions


Pipeline ‘sensing’ is just the beginning of the research work that the PEC does. Dr. Hugo sees the projects students are working on as following a continuum… from sensing, to facilities for testing and understanding signals, tools and processes for filtering and sorting data, and then using artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality to provide operators the information they need to make fact-based decisions. Here’s a quick sample of the kinds of projects the PEC has on the go:

  • AI to better analyze large data sets and help control room operators better understand the state of the pipeline system at any given moment.
  • Pipeline wrap technology with systems that can detect even a small drop of oil if the pipeline starts to lose fluid.
  • A virtual reality “control room in your pocket”, which replicates the information in the live control room.
  • Electrochemical research facilities to further investigate and enhance understanding of pipeline corrosion.
  • A joint project involving both civil and mechanical engineering that uses modeling and experiments to determine what happens when a pipe ages in the ground.

Dr. Hugo takes great pride in the work the PEC is doing to prepare the next generation of pipeline engineers. And he’s very excited about a new research laboratory that will soon open in Calgary.

“We’re calling the lab APRIL, an acronym for Advanced Pipeline Research and Innovation Laboratory,” says Dr. Hugo. “It’s a work in progress that will allow students to have hands-on training in many aspects of pipelining. We can bring in soil and pipes, and a wide range of items for fluids diagnostics and sensor developments, and lots more.” Stay tuned to the About Pipelines Blog for more information.

The Pipeline Integrity Institute (PII) within the UBC Faculty of Applied Science is also actively involved in research that will have a positive impact on the pipeline industry of the future. PII recently established the International Pipeline Conference Foundation Award in Pipeline Engineering. For the next five years, the award will create a stable stream of financial aid to support outstanding undergraduate and graduate students with a demonstrated interest and aptitude for pipeline engineering.

With the wealth of brain power, research and innovative technology being applied to continuously improve pipeline industry performance, we’re one-step closer to reaching our goal of zero incidents.

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