Energy Tech Talk

Let's Talk Energy With...Peter Paulson, Pure Technologies Ltd.

A burst pipeline can have devastating environmental consequences—making it crucial to detect small leaks before they become big problems. By identifying acoustic anomalies from inside a pipe, Pure Technologies’ SmartBall® leak detection system is changing the way oil pipelines are inspected for leaks and structural defects. We spoke with CEO Peter Paulson about his company’s innovative technology.

What exactly is the SmartBall tool?

PP: It’s literally a ball that contains very sensitive acoustic and magnetic sensors. The sensors are housed in an aluminum core, which is packed inside a urethane shell. Because the SmartBall tool is smaller in diameter than the pipeline, when it’s placed inside the pipe it’s pushed by the flow of product. There are no moving parts to create extra mechanical noise, so the tool rolls silently along, using its sensors to listen for anomalies. Specifically, it picks up the sound of fluid escaping the pipe, which we can differentiate from ‘normal’ pipeline sounds. The onboard electronics also help to keep track of where the SmartBall tool is in the pipeline, allowing us to pinpoint leaks to their location. 


Deployable in pipes as small as 10 cm in diameter, the SmartBall system uses acoustic and magnetic sensors to ‘listen’ for leaks and other defects.

What makes the SmartBall system unique?

PP: Because of its size and shape, the SmartBall tool can be deployed in all kinds of pipelines, including high-pressure and gas pipelines. It can also be deployed in pipelines that can’t be accessed by conventional pipeline inspection gauges (known in the industry as ‘pigs’) or are challenging for pigs to operate in, such as those located in mountainous regions. It has such a range of applications—it’s almost surprising that one instrument can do all that.

Why is your technology so important?

PP: The oil and gas industry needs to make sure it can take its product to market without causing harm to the environment. Our technology is capable of detecting extremely small leaks in product pipelines that are not detectable by most other methods—meaning pipeline operators can find leaks before they become environmentally serious. 

Also, we can produce reports within days or even hours after completing an inspection; in comparison, traditional pigs can require months of processing after being extracted from the pipe. That means any leaks discovered can be acted upon that much quicker.

Watch this video for more details on how the SmartBall tool navigates its way through oil and gas pipelines.

What has been the reaction from the oil and gas industry?

PP: It’s been tremendous. In 2012, we inspected about 3,000 kilometres of pipeline using SmartBall technology—and with the market growing so quickly, we did more than that in the third quarter of 2013 alone. And because the SmartBall system is capable of running for weeks at a time—which isuseful when inspecting pipelines that can be thousands of kilometres long—our technology is less expensive to deploy than traditional pigs. So we’ve seen an explosive growth in adoption by pipeline operators.

Looking ahead

Right now, the SmartBall tool can detect pinhole-sized leaks with flows as low as 0.06 litres per minute—making it far more sensitive than conventional leak-detection systems. But Paulson says the device can become even ‘smarter’.

“The next phase of this project is to increase the sampling rate,” he says. “We’re currently able to detect frequencies up to 20 kHz, but we want to be able to detect up to 100 kHz. That will require us to increase the system’s data storage and power capacity by five times what it is now. So that’s what we’re working on—and we look forward to the challenge.”


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