Multi-Functional Distributed Fiber Sensors for Pipeline Monitoring and Methane Detections Last Reviewed June 2017


The goal of the project is to develop a new distributed fiber optical sensing technology that can perform multi-parameter and real-time measurements of natural gas pipeline systems including direct measurements of methane concentration across long interrogation distances (e.g., up to 100 km) with spatial resolution of 1 meter per measurement.

University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, PA) and Corning, Inc. (Corning, NY)

The large-scale extraction and utilization of natural gas creates significant challenges on methane leakage. This problem is exacerbated by aging gas utility delivery systems including interstate high pressure pipelines and storage facilities. As a potent greenhouse gas, leaking methane could negatively impact US efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

The scope of this project involves development of a multi-core optical fiber for simultaneous temperature, strain and optical methane absorption measurements, development of a functional polymer coating for methane detection, and ultimately, integration and testing of a fully-functional distributed fiber optical sensing technology for real-time measurement of methane emission from natural gas pipeline systems.

Research to be performed is divided into three major tasks that shall be conducted over a three year period and is designed to achieve the research objectives in the most efficient and cost‐effective way. These include:

  • Development of a multi-core fiber that can perform distributed temperature, strain, and absorption measurements in one fiber.
  • Development of new functional polymer materials which can be coated on the fiber during the fiber manufacturing process. This task is further sub-divided into two aspects. The first sub-task will be to design, synthesize, and test curable functional polymer materials that swell sufficiently in the presence of methane such that strain-based distributed sensing can be achieved. Due to methane’s low solubility compared to most other organic substances, the second sub-task will investigate organic and inorganic solutes that are dissolvable in the elastic polymers in order to enhance the polymer’s methane affinity, thereby supporting improved absorption-based distributed sensing.
  • Fabrication and testing of the new application-specific fiber and fiber coating designs for natural gas pipeline monitoring.


Distributed fiber sensing technology is generally limited to monitoring a single physical parameter, such as temperature or strain. This research will transform the technology by developing new multi-core optical fibers and functional fiber polymer coatings capable of monitoring both physical and chemical parameters across the entire fiber length with high spatial resolution. In addition, by changing polymer fiber coating compositions, the optical fiber can be designed to respond to different chemical species in gaseous or liquid phases beyond methane. This will dramatically increase adaptability of distributed fiber sensors for other applications beyond natural gas pipelines, such as monitoring of oil infrastructure, hydrogen facilities, CO2 and carbon storage, and water pollution.

Accomplishments (most recent listed first)
The project has made significant progress in the fabrication of both optical polymers for absorption-based measurements as well as elastic polymers for strain-based measurements. Polymer chemistry and synthesis routes have been validated, though additional work is needed to optimize the processes.

Current Status (June 2017)
Current efforts are focused on how to improve the mechanical qualities of the polymer and its adhesion properties to glass substrates. The structures of the synthesized polymers will be characterized and tested in the laboratory. The research will advance to the integration of Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs) into the polymer structure in order to trap methane molecules within the polymer. The integration of MOFs into the polymer will then be optimized through laboratory testing for methane sensitivity.

Project Start: October 1, 2016
Project End: September 30, 2019

DOE Contribution: $1,000,000
Performer Contribution: $300,000

Contact Information
NETL – Robert Vagnetti ( or 304-285-1334)
University of Pittsburgh – Dr. Kevin Peng Chen ( or 724-612-8935)

Additional Information:

Quarterly Research Progress Report [PDF] January - March, 2017

Quarterly Research Progress Report [PDF] October - December, 2016