Living sensors promise real-time leak detection in pipelines

March 19, 2018 //By Rich Pell
Living sensors promise real-time leak detection in pipelines
The American Chemical Society (Washington, D.C.) reports that scientists are developing sensor technology that would alert oil and gas pipeline managers about leaks as soon as they begin, preventing potential environmental disasters and disruptions in fuel distribution.

Currently, pipelines are inspected using "smart pig" technology, which uses an electronic sensor that travels through the pipe detecting cracks or welding defects. Despite regular such inspection using this approach, leaks still occur.

Now researchers say they are developing a biosensor that would complement this process by providing additional information about the integrity of the pipes. The sensor adheres to the outside of the pipe, and takes advantage of the metabolic process of bacteria to detect gas leaks in real time.

"The advantage with our sensor is that it can detect very small leaks, and operators can take quick action to repair them," says Veera Gnaneswar Gude, Ph.D., and leader of the project. "We no longer have to wait until the leak is out of hand. Plus if we are able to develop this system on a larger scale, the same unit would be able to treat the waste and to remediate the soil and water that has been contaminated."

The new biosensor technology uses an "electrogenic" bacteria that releases electrons to its environment through metabolic processes. Gude is currently testing bacteria that will elicit an adequately measurable cathode voltage while also being able to survive in a marine environment for the application of offshore oil spill detection. For this to work, the bacteria have to remain robust through a range of alkalinity, pressure and pH conditions.

An organic sensor was created comprising an electrogenic anode made up of bacteria that consume carbon-based material - gas or oil - and expel electrons, which then travel across a resistor to a cathode. A different set of bacteria - which are "hungry" for electrons - resides at the cathode encouraging electron flow. An increase in the metabolic processes of the anode bacteria will correspond to a voltage increase in the sensor - alerting a technician to a potential leak.

"The sensor is not difficult to implement," says Gude. "Placing the sensor onto

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