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Comfortable In Its Own Skin: the Northern Gateway Pipeline

Thousands of sensors smaller than one-quarter of a penny could help prevent pipeline leaks.
Thousands of sensors smaller than one-quarter of a penny could help prevent pipeline leaks.
University of Alberta

In July 2010, the Kalamazoo river in Michigan became a disaster area.

Engineers in Enbridge's control room mistook a zero-pressure alarm as the result of regular maintenance on an aging pipeline as opposed to an oil spill. By the time the spill was reported and the pipeline shut in 34,000 barrels of oil had spilled into the river. The cost of the spill, environmentally and economically, were staggering. The cleanup of the spill remains ongoing.

Opponents of the Northern Gateway pipeline -- which will carry oilsands oil from Edmonton to Kitimat, BC -- have frequently pointed at the Kalamazoo disaster as the case study for what could happen if the pipeline is built. Some opponents have confoundingly chosen to treat the Kalamazoo disaster as the best-case scenario: the best that could be hoped for if the pipeline goes ahead.

Many people would consider this a scare tactic.

In response to such tactics from Northern Gateway's opponents, Enbridge pledged to upgrade the technology planned to provide for the pipeline's safety. Some of these technologies would drastically reduce the probability of any spill, let alone one on the scale of Kalmazoo.

It's important to realize the extent of the human error that was necessary for a disaster like Kalmazoo to take place, but equally important to remember that sometimes -- quite often, in fact -- human error is aided by the imperfection of the information made available to the human making the error. This isn't to say that to assume that a zero pressure alarm was due to scheduled maintenance and continue pumping wasn't an error. It was.

But for the engineer in question, a zero-pressure alarm was not itself an indication that there was a breach in the line, merely an indication that a breach was possible. In that engineer's defense, the line had recently been shut down for maintenance.

Now if that pipeline were equipped with technology that would on its own report a break, that would be another thing entirely.

It just so happens that Dr Walied Moussa of the University of Alberta's mechanical engineering department is working on just such technology. Several pieces of it, in fact.

Among the numerous research and development projects on which Dr Moussa has been working is a sensor that would wirelessly transmit information on the integrity of the pipeline to the operators. Thousands of the sensors -- themselves an existing technology -- are attached to the pipeline. They monitor the line for information on things such as material fatigue and transmit them for the benefit of operators. The sensors could be used to predict a break before it ever takes place, so that operators can take action to prevent it.

Dr Moussa has also been at work developing a "smart membrane," wrapped around the pipeline, and capable of detecting a leak in progress. “It’s like if you wrapped a person’s cut with a smart skin that can actually feel the blood coming out of the skin and then use it to detect the person’s pulse. If you wrap our smart membrane around a pipe and you put it on the ground, we’ll be able to detect any small leak and pinpoint exactly where this leak is using a wireless technology that we develop,” Dr Moussa explained.

Should the "smart membrane" fail, sensors implanted in the soil are designed to detect hydrocarbons. These sensors are already used in medical science. Among other things, they help catch drunk drivers. Soon, they could be catching oil spills as well, enabling split-second responses.

Last but not least, Dr Moussa is working on a technology he has named the "mini-pig." This is a sensor ball pumped through the pipeline with the oil, wirelessly transmitting information about any changes occurring inside the pipe to operators. Again, aiding preventative maintenance is the idea.

"These balls act like a police patrol. You can send out as many as you wish one after the other and they all talk to each other because they are wireless. The nodes talk to each other and if one of them finds something, and the next one coming by finds the same thing, then you know you have a problem and you know exactly where that problem is,” Dr Moussa explained.

Used in concert with one another, these technologies could have aided preventative maintenance that would have prevented the Kalamazoo break. Failing that, they would have facilitated an immediate response to stop the spill as quickly as it began.

That's a boon to everyone involved. To producers and operators who will save themselves millions in lost product while also saving themselves as much as hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs. To local residents who won't see their lands or rivers polluted with the oil in the first place. Perhaps anyone whose employment relies on such spills may not be so happy.

Environmentally, the stakes for the Northern Gateway Pipeline will be quite high. Provided that Enbridge is serious about using the best technology available to ensure the safe operation of the pipeline it's a safe bet that Dr Walied Moussa's work will be very prominent in its structure.