Objectivity is the name of the game for Brian Wagg and the team at C-FER Technologies in Edmonton. That’s where industry rivals can collaborate to share research and development (R&D) dollars and test technologies with the potential to solve industry-wide challenges.
For pipeline companies like TransCanada, Enbridge and Kinder Morgan, that means working together to bolster their already-rigorous pipeline integrity programs with even more precise leak-detection technologies.
At C-FER, the study of pipeline leak detection technologies began with the development of the External Leak Detection Experimental Research (ELDER) test apparatus. This facility, funded by the Government of Alberta, Enbridge, TransCanada and Kinder Morgan, has allowed these companies to pool their resources and share in the testing and study of various vendor technologies.
“For TransCanada, it’s an opportunity to undertake research in collaboration with other companies so our R&D dollars go further. We are sharing knowledge and ideas and that benefits the industry as a whole,” says Thomas Robinson, manager of Technology Management at TransCanada.
The $1.4-million ELDER apparatus, which opened in the fall of 2014, has created an environment where vendors of the latest leak-detection technologies for oil pipelines can test their wares in controlled and realistic conditions by an objective third-party – C-FER.
“There are very few places you can dump oil on the ground to test leak detection technologies and not get in trouble, so we built one.” says Brian Wagg, director, Business Development and Planning for C-FER Technologies. “We’ve had 12 different vendors in the [ELDER] box, testing five different technologies at one time.”
“At the start of a test we tell the vendors, ‘There will be one or more leaks in the box between Monday morning and Friday afternoon. Tell us what your equipment detects,’” says Wagg. “We run the ELDER and have several leaks during that timeframe then the vendors prepare a report indicating what their sensors picked up. C-FER then provides the technology vendors with descriptions of the leaks that occurred, allowing them to fine tune their systems to be more precise and reliable for the next test.”
While the ELDER facility has been used to test various cable-based, in-ground technologies for leak detection, the next stage of ELDER testing will see aerial detection techniques included in the experiments. This is part of a major initiative announced on April 28, 2015 that will see TransCanada, Enbridge and Kinder Morgan working together with C-FER again to test aerial leak detection technologies.
“On one of the last underground sensor tests we did in the ELDER test apparatus, we were actually able to put sensors on the surface of the soil in the box to start to measure what an airborne system might actually see,” says Wagg. “We were already doing a controlled release underground, so why not measure what might be there to see above ground. That ties back to the benchmark modeling of leak characteristics that is being done by Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures and that information is used to tell the vendors what they’re actually looking for when we begin testing aerial technologies later this year.”
For Robinson, this is about adding new layers of protection to TransCanada’s multi-faceted pipeline integrity program, which already includes a robust program of aerial inspections, 24/7 monitoring and ongoing analyses by smart pigs.
“Aerial leak detection has the potential to enable us to detect smaller leaks sooner. That’s important for the air and the land,” says Robinson. “It’s something we’ll add to already wide suite of leak detection technologies. This is another string to our bow.”
The remarkable aerial technologies being tested at C-FER have the potential to spot leaks from the air before they’re even visible to the human eye, and could be deployed using helicopters, aircraft or even unmanned aerial vehicle (drones).
“We’re trying to spot leaks before they get to surface, that’s why we’re looking at different technologies. Things like the thermal image of the pipeline might change, the ground might heave change or the volatile organic compounds or gases that come up through the ground might be visible through these different detection technologies,” says Wagg.
In 2014, TransCanada landed a spot on Canada’s Top 100 Corporate R&D Spenders List by Research Infosource, Canada’s source of R&D Intelligence.
“For us, this is about much more than just the dollars we’re spending,” says Robinson. “We work hard to identify the most cutting-edge R&D initiatives that will move the needle for our industry, keep our communities and the environment safe and benefit the people who use the energy we transport.”