Bush Administration Takes First Step to Upgrade Pipe Grid

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced last week that the Department of Energy (DOE) will provide partial funding for 11 government-industry collaborative projects aimed at upgrading the safety and performance of the nation's natural gas interstate and intrastate transportation systems.

The department plans to provide more than $4.4 million over the next three years to seven companies to develop high-tech technologies to improve the gas delivery infrastructure, with the industry partners anteing up another $3.6 million, he said. The majority of the projects will address early detection of gas pipeline leaks and corrosion. Of considerable interest to pipelines will be a project that will attempt to develop an automated warning system to prevent the No. 1 cause of pipe ruptures -- third-party digging, as well as one that will seek to inject new life into old compressor engines.

With Abraham's announcement Thursday, the DOE began implementing some of pipeline-related proposals in the Bush Administration's national energy strategy that was unveiled in mid-May. "When President Bush announced the national energy policy...he stressed the need to modernize the nation's natural gas delivery system by adding new technologies to help ensure the safety and integrity of moving gas from the wellhead to consumers. The projects we're announcing today will help meet this critical need," Abraham said.

The costliest project ($1.7 million) and probably the one that could most improve the day-to-day operations of gas pipelines will be undertaken by Colorado State University in Fort Collins. It hopes to improve the reliability of pipeline compressor engines by developing a highly dependable, efficient micro-pilot ignition system that could be retrofitted to the thousands of 20- to 50-year old compressor engines now in use in the United States. The DOE would fund $500,000 of the total cost of the three-year project.

The DOE plans to provide $639,000 to Tuboscope Pipeline Services, based in Houston, to create a sensing system that uses sound waves and electromagnetic means to detect the severity of corrosion cracking in gas pipelines. The total cost for the 12-month project is $984,000.

The third costliest project will be headed up by SQM Technology in La Jolla, CA, which seeks to develop a magnetic telescope that inspectors can use from the surface to identify defects in underground gas lines. The total cost for the three-year project will be $942,000, with the DOE footing $612,000 of it.

The department also plans to negotiate research contracts with:

  • New York Gas Group of New York, NY, to develop a self-powered, remote-controlled robot for inspecting the inside of distribution mains. DOE has pledged to fund $495,000 of the project's total cost of $1.2 million;
  • Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, OH, to expand the capabilities of magnetic flux leakage technology to locate cracks in gas pipelines. The one-year project has a price tag of $284,000, with DOE agreeing to foot $184,000 of it;
  • Gas Technology Institute (GTI) of Des Plaines, IL, to come up with a low-cost imaging sensor that can be placed on the ground to create images of subsurface plastic pipes, or ceramic and metallic objects. The department has agreed to fund $368,000 of the project's total cost of $626,000;
  • GTI and Nicor Gas to develop an optical fiber device that would be buried above a pipeline and sound an alarm when construction or other equipment that could damage the pipe come too close. The cost of the two-year project is $447,000, with DOE anteing up $291,000;
  • GTI to conduct research into the use of natural products, such as pepper extract, to prevent or reduce corrosion of pipelines caused by microbes in the surrounding soil. DOE will contribute $509,000 so GTI can carry out the three-year, $783,000 project; and
  • Southwest Research Institute (SRI) of San Antonio, TX, to develop a low-cost, rugged device that uses sensing coils wrapped around a pipeline to map out corroded surface areas. This is the cheapest of the 11 projects, with a price tag of $100,000. The DOE will foot $65,000 of the costs;
  • SRI to develop an electromagnetic technology that can be installed in a "smart pig" to locate dents, gouges and other damage that can cause pipelines to fail. The department has agreed to contribute $260,000 to the total project cost of $400,000; and
  • SRI to develop a surge detector that can be used with new control system algorithms to reduce instances when the equilibrium between the flow of gas through pipes and through compressors becomes unstable, causing surges of gas that can damage equipment. SRI plans to team with Siemens Energy & Automation Inc. and the Gas Machinery Research Council on this project, which will cost $588,000. DOE will contribute $368,000.

DOE's Strategic Center for Natural Gas, at its National Energy Technology Laboratory, will oversee all of the gas transportation projects. Further details on each of the projects can be found on the department's web site at www.fossil.energy.gov.

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