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The "Line 9" Enbridge oil pipeline being worked on in East Don Parkland in Toronto.Mark Blinch

Automated devices that help monitor the safety of pipelines were born from the same technology as MRI machines

When Canada's National Energy Board gave a conditional green light this spring to reversing the Line 9 oil pipeline between Sarnia, Ont. and Montreal, the main issue being debated in the news was the safety of the project.

The $110-million project runs through the most populated part of Canada, including the Greater Toronto Area and Montreal, drawing concerns from some residents and opposition from environmental groups. The pipeline's operator, Enbridge Inc., has also applied to increase the amount of crude oil flowing through − a mixture of oil sands bitumen and lighter product − from 240,000 barrels per day to 300,000.

One section of the pipeline, running from Sarnia to just west of Hamilton, has been reversed since late 2013.

Reversing pipelines is not new. In fact, this same pipeline ran in the opposite direction in the past. And state-of-the-art technology exists to make the operation of pipelines ever more secure.

One such innovation is called a pipeline "pig." Adapted from their previous deployment in health care, they are automated inspection devices that travel through the pipeline, sending data about safety and the integrity of the pipeline walls.

"They look torpedo-shaped, or cigar-shaped," says Ziad Saad, Vice-President of Sustainability for the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association. These metal-encased devices have been sent through pipelines for many years for cleaning and maintenance, but more recently, the pigs have become smarter.

"Smart pigs are the ones with computers on board, to detect any anomalies or defects inside the line," Mr. Saad says. The size and sophistication of these sensor-packing pigs depends on the thickness of the pipeline and what kind of information is needed. Some of the larger − and smarter − of the smart pigs can be up to 3 metres long.

Back in 2009, a pig built by GE Oil and Gas using its MagneScan MFL pipeline inspection technology completed its first 400 kilometres of pipeline inspection work on both sides of the Atlantic, in the United States and Italy.

This inspection tool maps the pipeline and checks it for corrosion, using high-resolution magnetic flux leakage sensors. "It's similar to an MRI — a lot of the technology used by smart pigs is similar to the medical diagnostic tools used in hospitals," Mr. Saad says. Magnetic flux leakage technology for smart pigs was adapted from health care technology such as GE's Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines.

The data from the pigs' sensors can be linked to geographic information system (GIS) analysis, to tell inspectors and operators where to find different structural anomalies along the pipeline. Locations can be pinpointed using GPS. Other sensors on smart pigs use ultrasound, looking for changes or weakness in the metal walls or pipeline coating.

Smart pigs may be needed only once a year or less, compared with sensor-less cleaning and scraper pigs that go through sections of a pipeline as often as once a week.

Aside from ever more sophisticated pipeline pigs, the technology for reversing a pipeline is not particularly new or complicated, Mr. Saad says. New pumping stations will be needed at some points along the line, and various "sending" and "receiving" substations along the way that dispatch or collect crude will need to be adjusted, so they hold enough oil to keep traffic flowing smoothly.

Gathering detailed data from smart pigs is important to a project like the Line 9 reversal even though this pipeline has been reversed before — it used to run east from Sarnia then was switched in 1998 to accommodate foreign crude oil for refineries in that city. In approving the plan by Enbridge, the National Energy Board imposed some 30 conditions related to safety and public consultation, among other things.

Enbridge applied for energy board approval on the Line 9 reversal in November 2012, when the price of Western Canadian crude became lower than the West African and Middle Eastern oil that the Montreal refineries had been receiving and piping west to Sarnia.

The two refineries in Quebec represent 20 per cent of Canada's refining capacity, with about 1,000 workers out of a total of 3,600 petrochemical workers in Montreal's east end, according to a report by policy analyst Jean-François Minardi for the Montreal Economic Institute.

"Reversing a line is a not rocket science," says Mr. Saad, but the engineers have to be cautious. "So you do a lot of advancement [test] runs in anticipation of the reversing and that will give them the clues as to where you need to inspect the pipeline visually and so on."

Changing a pipeline's flow doesn't happen often, but it's not unheard of either. "Pipelines are there to serve markets, and when the markets change, you can change the direction of the pipeline," he adds.

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This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with GE. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.