Scientists to study reliability of alarm systems for oil leaks

In an attempt to reduce oil leaks from pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico, a team of US scientists will be analysing the reliability of alarm systems in detecting oil leaks, especially in pipelines that carry both oil and natural gas.

The researchers, from the University of Missouri-Rolla, are examining the way the oil and gas industries monitor their pipelines for possible leaks and line breaks in the 32,000 miles (51,500 km) of offshore pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico, which supply the US with 1.3 million barrels of oil and 13.9 billion standard cubic feet of natural gas per day. The region accounts for 20% of the nation’s oil production, and 27% of its natural gas production.

Electronic sensors are used to detect sudden drops in pressure, explained Dr Shari Dunn-Norman, Associate Professor of Geological and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla, and leader of the research team. “But this method of leak detection may not be as accurate as it should be. False alarms do occur.”

“Pressure monitoring is a reasonable method of detecting leaks because wall failure of a pipeline under pressure is a sudden event, and the fluid loss produces a sudden pressure disturbance within the pipeline,” said Dunn-Norman. However, in pipelines that carry both oil and gas, the alarms don’t always indicate a leak, she says. “There may be a slugging or a surge effect when both liquid and gas are moving through the same lines. That is just part of the flow phenomena,” said Dunn-Norman.

The results of the team’s research will be used to help the oil and gas industry improve the monitoring of undersea pipeline operations.

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