These golf ball-sized sensors could change pipeline safety performance

Image: Ingu Solutions

An early-stage company called Ingu Solutions has developed an affordable miniaturized technology for pipeline leak detection, geometric defects and deposits that threaten pipeline performance and safety.

“Pipers” are golf-ball-sized sensors that Ingu Solutions puts into pipelines and let flow with the product stream as a cost-effective inspection tool that strengthens preventive maintenance processes.

Industry estimates that about 40 per cent of the world’s pipeline assets are too difficult or expensive to inspect, representing a 1.5-million kilometer opportunity for Ingu. And then there are all the pipelines where Pipers can complement traditional maintenance procedures that use smart PIGS (Pipeline Inspection Gauges).

“We’re not only reducing costs, but we’re enabling oil and gas companies to inspect pipeline assets that are currently unreachable,” says Ingu CEO John van Pol, a nuclear physicist who leads the Calgary-based company of six people.

“There’s no diameter constraint in the pipeline or a flow constraint, where as a PIG always has the diameter of the pipeline.”

The viability of Pipers technology is evidenced by Chevron Technology Ventures making Ingu Solutions one of its first choices for the recently launched CTV Catalyst Program, an initiative to help early-stage companies promote technology to advance the oil and gas industry around the world.

“Currently we’re running lab pilots and expect to do the first field pilot still this year,” van Pol says.

From wormholes to pipes

Nucleons and oil and gas sensors might seem worlds apart, but van Pol says there's actually more commonality than people might think between nuclear physics and what Ingu is trying to do with its instruments in a pipeline.

Originally from the Netherlands, van Pol started looking at sensor technology for remote and inaccessible areas in 2008 and connected with Saskatchewan’s Petroleum Technology Research Center, which wanted to map wormholes created by the reservoir process known as CHOPS (cold heavy oil production with sand). In CHOPS, sand is purposely produced in order to create these wormholes as pathways for heavy oil extraction.

The idea was to see if a sensor could be made small enough to travel through a wormhole reservoir to provide more information and potentially lead to better production in CHOPS plays.

“We learned that the sensor would need to be seven millimeters or less to go through one of these wormhole reservoirs,” van Pol says.

The problem was that the smallest commercially available sensor the team could make without having to invest a lot of capital to build their own chip was about 40 mm.

“We developed a 40 mm version and started to test that with the Saskatchewan Research Council in Saskatoon and, even though we couldn't use this on wormholes, it was perfectly suitable for pipelines,” van Pol says.

After a project testing the sensors with Shell Canada, van Pol founded Ingu Solutions, relocated to Calgary and got picked up by Chevron for its innovation program.

PIGS versus golf balls

While PIGS exist in various diameters, the narrower a pipe is, the risk of a PIG getting stuck in the line increases. A golf ball-sized sensor, on the other hand, is easy to inject and extract and doesn’t get stuck.

At only “a couple hundred dollars” per piece, van Pol says Ingu’s clients essentially get the sensors for free and are charged for the data analytics. That lower capital threshold opens the door for more frequent use compared to PIGS, which are typically run on a five or 10-year intervals.

“You could even run them monthly or weekly. We can compare the subsequent runs and get a picture of the state of the pipeline over time, which means that the information is much more accurate.”

Challenges

A common challenge cited in bringing a new technology to market is that no one wants to be the first to try to prove it out — especially when pipeline safety is at stake. Ignu’s association with Chevron has helped overcome that hurdle and van Pol says the company now has “a couple of clients in Calgary that are pretty eager to run first trials on live line.”

The flip side of that challenge is battling the assumption that intuitive technology for leak detection will solve all pipeline problems.

“The second challenge is managing expectations, “ van Pol says. “Today we can do leak detection. A few months from now, we may be able assess wall thickness. In a year, we might be able to look at corrosion. We’re rapidly developing new technology but it takes time to get there. Smart PIGS, after all, were developed over the course of decades. So we have to make sure that we have a viable solution for today while working towards expanding those capabilities in the future.”