ORLANDO, FL - Pinpointing the precise location of natural gas pipelines beneath America's streets and backyards could become much easier thanks to a U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored spinoff of an advanced landmine detection system being developed for the military.
At a field test earlier this year sponsored by the Department of Energy, CyTerra Corporation demonstrated a new, lightweight, handheld detector that can pinpoint the exact location of both metallic and plastic underground pipes -- even if the pipes are buried 10 feet deep. Such pipes are commonly used to deliver natural gas to millions of homes and businesses, making the discovery of direct interest to natural gas consumers everywhere.
"We are extremely interested in finding additional methods that can be used to speed delivery and boost safety elements in our natural gas R&D projects," Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said. "CyTerra's innovation offers a means to achieve both goals -- a critical point -- because my recent meeting with the National Petroleum Council raised concerns about natural gas supply levels and consumption demand in the United States."
Secretary Abraham had earlier called upon the National Petroleum Council to host a meeting later this year to discuss natural gas supplies, but felt the situation needed more immediate attention and requested an interim summit which convened last month. He has also called for a Global Liquefied Natural Gas Summit to be held later this year, and has launched the Department of Energy's (DOE) "Smart Energy" public awareness campaign to educate businesses, homeowners and consumers on ways they can cut energy bills, which he's been promoting in trips around the country.
"The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has also been supportive of our efforts to improve natural gas stock levels by accelerating the approval process for the construction and operation of natural gas pipelines, which makes CyTerra's innovation even more timely," Secretary Abraham said. "I have asked them for an expeditious review of the four pending applications for new Liquefied Natural Gas, or LNG, related projects that have been filed with them because our analyses show that LNG will play an increasingly important role in providing for our energy security in the United States."
CyTerra, headquartered in Waltham, Mass., developed the detector with funding from the Department of Energy's natural gas research program. Termed LULU - for Low-Cost Utility Location Unit - the technology is an adaptation of the company's Hand-Held Stand-Off Mine Detection System, which is being developed to assist the U.S. Army locate anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.
The new detector is expected to be especially beneficial in preventing "third party" damage. While not common, third party damage occurs when construction or excavation crews inadvertently strike underground utility lines. Last year, according to the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, third party damage caused nine fatalities, 45 injuries, and an estimated $23 million in damage costs. It is by far the most dangerous and costly type of accident caused by the inability to detect gas pipes, especially older pipes that may not be correctly marked on the surface.
Like its military version, the LULU technology relies on ground penetrating radar. To make it suitable for pipeline detection, Cyterra engineers altered the frequency band and antenna size of the system to increase the depth detection range from shallow mine depths of inches up to10 feet for pipeline detection. When the radar passes over a buried pipeline, signal-processing techniques provide real-time output by producing a series of beeps to alert an operator.
A key advantage of the technology is its capability to discriminate between metal and plastic pipes. Current commercial detection methods rely on magnetic devices and cannot detect plastic pipelines. Increasingly, newer gas distribution pipes are being constructed of plastic and ceramic materials.
In fact, the Gas Technology Institute estimates that 72 percent of all 3-inch-diameter natural gas distribution pipes in the United States are plastic. These pipes are commonly used for the service lines that deliver natural gas from the gas main to the meters of homes and businesses.
The CyTerra project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy Natural Gas Delivery Reliability Program, and is managed by the Department's National Energy Technology Laboratory.