Ultra-sensitive SmartBalls ‘listen’ for tiny leaks

Piping Up For Technology Series (Part 8)

Innovation never stands still – there’s always a new advancement coming down the pipe. Enbridge is constantly testing commercially available technologies, and looking for opportunities to enhance existing technologies, in the areas of design, prevention, monitoring and leak detection, to keep our pipelines safe.

Our Piping Up For Technology Series, on the @enbridge blog, offers a glimpse of various research projects we’re engaged in, and the efforts we’re making to adapt and harness technology for safety’s sake. These proactive investments in innovation are intended to add another layer of safety and security to our pipeline network – and, ultimately, to the energy transportation industry as a whole.

As diagnostics go, this technological tool is all ears.

When Calgary-based Pure Technologies Ltd. began developing the SmartBall leak detection tool for oil and gas pipelines, the company turned up the dial on acoustic sensitivities.

“Oil and gas pipelines run at high pressures, and when you have a pinhole-sized leak, it creates a wall of noise—specifically, high-frequency noise,” says Tim Ross, business development manager for PureHM, the oil-and-gas division of Pure Technologies. “When we run a SmartBall inside of a pipeline that’s experiencing a pinhole leak, the tool can often hear the leak up to a kilometer upstream. The signals stand out clear as day.”

A free-swimming tool with a foam shell, a SmartBall consists of an aluminum core with an extremely sensitive microphone, called a hydrophone, that takes advantage of fluids’ superiority as an acoustic coupling medium. Usually about 18 inches in diameter, a SmartBall can travel within a pipeline for up to 18 days while collecting stress, pressure, temperature and other data, and is capable of locating pinhole leaks – typically within six feet of their location.

SmartBall is considered a complementary, or “due diligence” tool, that’s used in addition to preventative measures such as in-line inspection (ILI) tools. These high-tech, MRI-like devices travel along the interior of our lines and scan the pipe inch by inch, using either ultrasound technology to detect crack-like features or magnetic flux leakage technology to detect metal loss features.

In-line inspection tools are known colloquially as “smart pigs”—one branch of a family of pipeline tools traditionally known as “pigs” for their propensity to make a squealing noise as they travel down the line, fitted tightly to the sides of the pipe.

SmartBalls, meanwhile, make no sound, owing to their method of inspection. “It’s really just the flow rate that’s rolling the ball through the pipe,” says Ross. “The ball flows silently through the pipe, and has sensitivity to those small leaks.”

To date, SmartBalls have been used to inspect more than 30,000 miles (48,280 kilometers) of oil and gas pipelines, primarily in North America. Enbridge tested the SmartBall technology over a two-year period, and, based on need, we now use the devices along selected segments of our crude oil pipeline network.

“It’s another valuable tool in the tool kit,” says Ray Philipenko, senior manager of leak detection at Enbridge. “It’s complementary to other methods that we use to periodically inspect the pipeline for the presence of leaks, like aerial surveillance and foot patrols.

“Acoustic noise can be used, along with the location data,” adds Philipenko, “to assist our personnel in performing site inspections, and confirming whether there are leaks present on our system.”

Watch for upcoming posts from our Piping Up For Technology series on the @enbridge blog channel.