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A boom stretches out to contain a pipeline leak last month on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta. New technologies promise to detect, in real time, problems with ground movement, oil and gas flow, and thinning steel caused by corrosion. (JEFF McINTOSH/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A boom stretches out to contain a pipeline leak last month on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta. New technologies promise to detect, in real time, problems with ground movement, oil and gas flow, and thinning steel caused by corrosion. (JEFF McINTOSH/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Oil leaks put new focus on detection Add to ...

DarkPulse Technologies Inc. seems to have everything that Alberta, a province that’s seen three large oil spills in the past couple of months, could want.

It has a system that gives notice of leaks the second they start. It has a Canadian story, with an invention rooted at the University of New Brunswick. It has a great name, which speaks to the use of “dark pulses” on fibre optic cables that form the heart of its technology.

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What the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company doesn’t have much of are customers, at least not in the pipeline world.

DarkPulse and a growing array of other innovators have a bold promise. They could, president Dennis O’Leary said after one of the recent Alberta pipe ruptures, “have prevented this accident from occurring.”

For somewhere between $3,000 and $20,000 a kilometre, depending on the intensity of the monitoring, DarkPulse can wrap fibre optic cables down a pipe that can detect, in real time, problems with ground movement, oil and gas flow, or thinning steel caused by corrosion.

Installing the technology might add roughly $25-million to a $5.5-billion project such as Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, a relatively minor cost.

But those who are inventing new ways to monitor pipelines and safeguard the environment have opened a window on how tough it is to boost standards on old pipe, the area of primary concern. Installing the DarkPulse system on existing infrastructure, for example, requires digging up pipelines to wrap them with fibre optics.

That’s a prohibitively expensive exercise – one industry estimate suggested it would run 40 per cent of the cost of building a new pipe to expose existing pipe, rehabilitate its coating and re-cover it. Plus, there is good reason for pipeline companies to be cautious with new detection methods. Some are so sensitive they trigger numerous false alarms, which are almost as dangerous as insufficient warning, since they can mask real problems.

It’s in part for that reason that the pipeline industry has, in the experience of companies like DarkPulse, taken a halting approach to buffing up safety standards. DarkPulse, which started applying its technology to pipe, is now catering to the mining industry. Pipeline companies, it has found, simply aren’t that interested in figuring out better ways to protect their assets.

DarkPulse technology gives “a 360-degree view inside and out of the pipe. It’s almost like an X-ray,” Mr. O’Leary said. But with pipeline companies, “they’d rather not know sometimes,” he said. “It seems to me a very reactive type of industry. It’s not very pro-active, and very slow to adopt anything new.”

That may, however, be changing. Pipelines have come under increasing scrutiny, especially as new proposals, such as TransCanada’s Keystone XL and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipelines, which aim to ship oil to the U.S. Gulf Coast and B.C. West Coast, have made safety an issue of international concern. Companies such as DarkPulse believe technology can mitigate some of those concerns.

And though pipeline companies have, in recent years, been faulted for not paying enough attention to safety, that is changing. A year ago, Enbridge chief executive officer Pat Daniel charged two senior executives with finding new ways to protect pipe. One was Chuck Szmurlo, vice-president of alt ernative and emerging technology, who was asked to search outside normal channels for fresh approaches.

He and his team assessed dozens of new ideas. Some came from space, including a planetary atmospheric assessment technology developed by the Canadian Space Agency and NASA. It promises to pick up the gaseous evidence of small leaks from patrol aircraft – even in winter, when a leak might be hidden under snow. A new laser system could do similar aerial work. Another possibility: a high-tech sniffer mounted to a truck and connected to a MacBook that can detect problems in real-time – a major boost from much more labour-intensive systems today.

In June, Enbridge tested five technologies, using deliberate gas leaks and hiding a container with oily soil in a forest to see whether the new methods would pick up leaks.

“I hope to do a lot more,” Mr. Szmurlo said. “We’re discussing possible investments in these companies to help financially enable them to bring these technologies to commercial reality.”

Though Mr. Szmurlo was not familiar with DarkPulse, technologies similar to what it employs are in the mix, too. Fibre optics are an area of study for Enbridge, and could even be installed on a pipeline to the West Coast, if it’s built.

“I’m convinced that Gateway will have the best and brightest of our ideas employed on it,” Mr. Szmurlo said. “Because that’s just of such huge strategic importance to us.”

Follow on Twitter: @nvanderklippe

 
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