Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) and a Silicon Valley maker of measurement instruments said Monday they have collaborated on a technology for more accurately detecting natural gas pipeline leaks. PG&E is the first utility in the nation to begin applying the new equipment in its upgraded pipeline safety programs.

Santa Clara, CA-based Picarro Inc. developed the "Picarro Surveyor" and the San Francisco-based combination utility has decided to deploy the instruments in ongoing pipeline system monitoring.

This equipment uses Picarro's cloud-based processing platform in what the company says are patent-pending algorithms that analyze data received and stored through wireless technology. Picarro characterizes its leak detector as "a thousand times more sensitive and faster-scanning" than existing technologies that are used on foot patrols of transmission and distribution pipeline systems.

"The Picarro [equipment] allows natural gas operators to survey for leaks at speeds previously impossible, while automatically mapping and displaying results in real time in a web browser for faster, more accurate leak detection," Picarro said.

Nick Stavropoulos, PG&E executive vice president for gas operations, said technology is a "must-have tool in helping us increase public and employee safety and the efficiency of our natural gas network."

The equipment uses ultra-trace methane concentration measurements in the air in combination with a high-resolution global positioning system, along with a time stamp and wind speed and direction readings. The detector differentiates between pipeline natural gas, which is typically up to 95% methane, and naturally occurring methane.

"When the intuitive system suspects a natural gas leak, it automatically determines the stable isotope signature of methane to confirm a methane source as natural gas and rule out false positives from naturally occurring methane, and then analyzes the recorded wind speed and direction to indicate the likely location of leaks," Picarro said.

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