DES PLAINS, IL -
Successful early tests of a pipeline sensor that locates plastic, ceramic
and metallic underground pipes could help reduce dangerous instances of
natural gas pipeline breaks. The U.S. Department of Energy is working
with the Gas Technology Institute (GTI), Des Plains, IL, to develop the
prototype sensor which, if all goes as planned, should be ready for demonstration
by the end of this year.
The sensor is one of 11 gas infrastructure reliability research projects
selected last year in a program managed by DOE's National Energy Technology
The gas distribution industry has needed such a tool for decades. While
not a common occurrence, so-called "third-party damage" -- typically
caused by construction crews or, for example, power companies erecting
telephone poles -- is the single main reason for pipeline damage. If unreported
or undetected, serious consequences can result years after the initial
damage was inflicted.
The changes of pipeline damage will inevitably increase as the nation's
gas industry installs more transmission and distribution pipes to meet
the Nation's growing demand for clean burning natural gas. Demand for
natural gas in the United States is projected to expand faster than any
other fuel source during the next two decades, largely because more power
companies are using natural gas to generate electricity. According to
the Energy Information Administration, the amount of electricity generated
from natural gas could triple between 1999 and 2020.
The National Petroleum Council, an advisory committee to the Secretary
of Energy, recently forecasted the need for more than 38,000 miles of
new gas transmission lines and 263,000 miles of distribution mains by
Increasingly, plastic and ceramic materials are being used in newer gas
distribution pipes. In fact, GTI estimates that 72 percent of all 3-inch-diameter
natural gas distribution pipes in the U.S. are plastic.
The sensor resembles a flat plate made of electrodes. When placed on
the ground, the sensor uses low-frequency electrical waves to detect buried
ceramic, plastic and metallic objects. The GTI sensor would address long-standing
problems that have impeded the industry's efforts to detect non-metallic
distribution lines, which are buried anywhere from 3 to 10 feet deep.
In a recent test, the sensor imaged a four-inch plastic pipe beneath four
feet of soil.
Competing sensors that use high-frequency waves are
more expensive and not as effective because soil more easily absorbs high-frequency
waves. High frequencies formed the backbone of detection systems used
by the military and mining industry because they produce clearer images
of metal objects. Borrowing components from these existing sensors, GTI's
low-frequency technique is enhanced by multiple antennas that sharpen
an image's resolution without the high costs associated with electronics
that support high-frequency sensors. The low-frequency technique also
detects non-metallic objects, a capability that most other sensors don't