Around the world, talented scientists are hard at work developing new technologies that will ensure the safe operation of pipelines.
It isn't as glamorous a matter to report on as spills, disasters, or protests. Accordingly, you don't see or hear much about it.
Nor do you hear much about Alberta's own powerhouse pipeline safety partnership: none other than the oft-vilified TransCanada (builders of the proposed Keystone XL and Energy East pipelines) and equally-often-vilified Enbridge (builders of the Northern Gateway line).
While many other technologies under development are being designed to replicate the senses of touch (fibre optic distributed temperature sensing systems), smell (vapour-sensing tubes), hearing (fibre optic distributed acoustic sensing system), and taste (hydro-carbon sensing cables).
It sounds especially technical. And it is. Unfortunately the sheer impressiveness of these technologies is lost in that.
Distributed temperature sensing involves the use of fibre optic cables stretched along the distance of the object to be monitored. A laser is transmitted along that cable. When that laser encounters a change in temperature the light is scattered. Computer analysis can determine the site and scope of that temperature change. In the case of a pipeline leak, the change in temperature occurs when a leaking fluid contacts the cable. The range of these technologies is especially impressive: currently up to 18 kilometers!
Distributed acoustical sensing uses optical fibres to detect and localize the sounds made by a pipeline leak. Current versions of the technology require the noise to be louder than whatever background noise is present. However, future versions of this technology may use computers to identify any anomalous sounds and detect a possible leak based on those anomalies.
Vapour-sensing tubes use small permeable tubes to absorb vapours and transport those vapours -- the vapours, not data -- to a sampling station. When measurable levels of hydrocarbon vapours enter the tube a leak is detected. This technology could be especially effective when dealing with sour oil (oil containing significant levels of dangerous hydrogen sulphide gas).
Hydrocarbon-sensing cables are electoral conductors encased within materials which will absorb hydrocarbons and swell. The electrical properties of the conductor change. When that happens, the system detects a leak.
These are intriguing technologies. Since 2013 these technologies have been undergoing testing under the watchful eyes of Qishi Chen and Tony Kateryniuk at C-FER Technologies in Edmonton.
The platform they've built to test these technologies is also very impressive. Called the External Leak Detection Experimental Research apparatus, the platform essentially amounts to an indoor closed-circuit pipeline seven metres long. Using that platform they can simulate any condition these technologies could be expected to encounter.
Enbridge and TransCanada are doing more than just talking about building safer pipelines. They're putting their money where their mouth is, even if the media is scarcely talking about it.