Leak detector is on a roll

Tumbling down a pipeline, the SmartBall finds leaks before they turn to floods.

On April 29, more than 28,000 barrels of crude oil sprang from the Rainbow pipeline in Alberta and gushed into the boreal forest and nearby marsh. It was the province’s largest spill in 36 years. The pipeline’s owners, Plains Midstream Canada, said that loose soil and a bad weld were to blame for the spill, but now that the company has applied to reopen the pipe, scientists are looking for more information. Canada’s oil pipeline infrastructure is aging, and in a stretch of 57-year-old pipe like Rainbow, is there a reliable way to catch these troubled sections of pipe before they burst?

Pure Technologies Ltd., a Calgary-based company that develops tools for the inspection and monitoring of physical infrastructure, has created a device that could dramatically improve leak detection in the oil industry—catching drips before the weakened pipe unleashes a flood. The device, which looks like a cross between a hamster wheel and a bowling ball is called SmartBall, and it rolls along the inside of pipelines, using acoustic technology to pick up the distinctive sound or vibration signals that a leak gives off while the rest of the pressurized product flows through the pipe. The device is capable of surveying long transmission mains of up to 20 kilometres in one day.

The SmartBall is capable of great precision in pinpointing the location of the leak, because as the ball rolls, propelled by the oil, it emits an ultrasonic “ping” every three seconds. The pings are picked up by sensors that are laid along the pipe, and are linked to a GPS time clock and an accelerometer that captures each rotation the ball makes.

That precision is unlike any other option on the market for leak detection, such as aerial surveys, human patrols or satellite imaging, which are unreliable at catching small leaks. Acoustic detection systems mounted on pigs, the devices used to clean and inspect pipelines, have been tried before, but these tools make so much noise themselves that their sensitivity is limited. Plus, when the software catches a problem, the leak can be presented as a percentage of the fluid passing through the pipe—usually between 1% and 5%. If that percentage is on the lower end, the company may choose to wait until the number increases (meaning the leak has grown) before putting more manpower and money into verifying the location and cause of a potential problem. This hedges against false alarms but also means that when there is an issue, it may not be addressed quickly. That can cause serious damage to the environment and mean wasted product for the company.

SmartBall was originally introduced to deal with leak problems in the water industry more than five years ago, but the team quickly saw opportunities to expand. “We’re based out of Calgary, and I remember the conversation with our CEO where we asked, ‘Why aren’t we doing this for oil and gas?’ The other tools available could never detect a pinhole leak,” says Muthu Chandrasekaran, the vice-president of business development at Pure Technologies. Convincing oil heavyweights the SmartBall solution was safe and effective was a challenge. “Oil and gas is a very reserved group, especially when it comes to pipeline integrity. They’re very slow to change,” says Chandrasekaran. But, the company found its niche in very long stretches of pipe and “unpiggable” pipelines with bends in them, or that don’t have insertion or extraction traps.

When asked if SmartBall could have prevented a disaster like the recent Rainbow spill, Chandrasekaran is solemn. “Plains Midstream is already a huge proponent of SmartBall, and we’ve actually done leak detection on Rainbow, but we did not do it on the section that they had the issue with,” he says. “It’s so unfortunate, because they’re such a proactive group, and we were well-positioned there.” Being in the right place in time to catch leaks will be increasingly challenging. “These leaks are going to continue to happen just because of the age of the infrastructure and the number of miles they have buried underground,” he says.

The firm is getting ready to launch a SmartBall system for detecting gas leaks. In urban settings with concrete, or places where the ground isn’t letting the leak surface, the SmartBall will work far better than using infrared detection tools. “For gas applications, it’s tough to find leaks. You’re not going to see a pooling of a product above ground,” says Chandrasekaran. “This tool will revolutionize gas, for sure.”