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Will leak detection end the oil pipeline impasse?

Adrian Banica, founder and CEO of Synodon, a company that builds systems to detect pipeline leaks, discusses how remote sensing technology can find little pipeline leaks before they become big leaks, in an interview with OilPrice.com.

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Adrian Banica: It is relatively simple. Synodon has developed a remote sensing technology that can measure very small ground level concentrations of escaped gas from an aircraft flying overhead. This “realSens” technology is mounted on a helicopter and piloted by GPS over a pipeline.

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Think of this gas sensor as a big infrared camera that is particularly adept at detecting very, very small color changes in the infrared spectrum. The color changes that we detect are caused by various gasses that the instrument looks at. Every gas in nature absorbs and colors the infrared light that passes through it in a very specific way. From the shade of the color, we can also infer how much methane or ethane we can see with our instruments. In effect, it’s like a color fingerprint of the gas.

James Stafford: Can you give us a sense of how this technology has evolved into what it is today—essentially the potential tool for bringing environmentalists and industry leaders together over the pipeline issue?

Adrian Banica: Yes. It started in space. Back in the 1990s, I was aware of technology being developed for various space programs, including Canada’s and NASA’s. I was looking for technologies that could solve oil and gas problems, but that were also novel, unique. That is how the whole idea started: It was matching a technology that the Canadian Space Agency funded to develop an instrument that measured carbon monoxide and methane from orbit. (Related Article: The Political Implications of America's Oil & Gas Boom - James Kwak Interview)

So the idea then was if one can detect methane from space, why couldn’t we adapt that technology to detect methane by flying it on a plane? In 2000, I founded Synodon in order to monetize and commercialize this.

James Stafford: How effective are automated leak detection systems?

Adrian Banica: They are typically only able to detect high level leaks above 1% of the pipeline flow. They measure the volume of the product that passes a sensor (flow measurements) and the pressure in the pipeline--if there is a leak the pressure will be lower downstream from it, among other things. However, as a recent report from the Department of Transportation in the US points out, these systems only detect a leak at best about 40% of the time, irrespective of how big a leak is.

It is also important to differentiate between catastrophic leaks and small leaks. For catastrophic leaks, most pipelines use these flow meters which operate 24/7. But smaller leaks can only be detected by performing an above-ground survey either by foot patrol, vehicle or aircraft. The predominant technologies used would be sampling gas sensors, thermal cameras, laser detection or our remote sensing system.

James Stafford: So this remote sensing technology uses a sort of “fingerprinting” to detect leaks, but we understand that it has much more to offer the industry …

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