Plugging oil leaks

Researchers from Aberdeen University have developed a method for detecting and sealing leaks in oil pipelines, based on the way the human body responds to cuts and wounds.

Spillage caused by ruptures in pipelines can cause significant environmental damage, as well as interrupting supplies and hitting revenue. ‘The Health and Safety Executive and DTI are pushing for a reduction in the amount of oil lost through leaks, for environmental and economic reasons,’ said the university’s enterprise fellow Iain Chirnside. ‘Our technology is well placed to take advantage of this.’

The Advanced Technology for Leak Location and Sealing system (ATLLASTM) works by using the fluid flow within the pipe. Just as blood supplies platelets to a wound to block the opening and form a clot, ATLLASTM delivers specially designed platelets to the site of a leak.

The platelets are constructed from polymers made from a variety of materials, depending on the job required and factors such as the temperature of the liquid and pressure to be encountered. When the material reaches a breach the pressure of the liquid leaking draws the platelets towards the pipe wall and holds them there, forming a temporary seal. The system will repair minor to medium damage where the hole is less than the pipe’s diameter.

Each platelet contains an electronic tag. When cleaning gear, known as a pig, passes through the pipe, equipment on it alerts engineers about the exact location of the hole. The pipeline can then continue to operate while maintenance is planned.

As ATLLASTM works in any pressurised flow, it is also suitable for use in the water and chemical industries. The developers are forming a spin-off company, Brinker Technologies, to develop the system commercially. They plan to work with the North Sea oil industry to carry out field trials on offshore pipes.