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Tom Kirkman

Bats inspire new technique to find corroding metal in oil, gas pipelines

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A decade a ago, I installed a proprietary leak detection system on Emergency Shutdown Valves on a number of offshore oil platforms.  Sound frequency similarities and differences were the primary tool used to predict when an ESD valve would leak due to degraded seats and seals, before leaks actually occured.  It would also detect when an ESD valve leaked. 

Briefly, sound frequencies and patterns inside the sealed valve cavity (seat pockets) were compared with sound frequencies in the connected pipeline. 

The sound frequency patterns inside a properly sealed valve cavity would be much different than the sound frequency patterns in the connected pipeline.

But if the valve seats or seals were degraded or leaking, the sound frequency patterns inside the not-so-sealed valve cavity would share characteristics of the connected pipeline.

The technique below uses a different application of sound frequencies.


Bats inspire new technique to find corroding metal in oil, gas pipelines

Using the unique ultrasound system deployed by bats as inspiration, engineers have developed a new way to locate corroding metal in oil and gas pipelines.

To hunt prey and dodge objects while flying through the air, usually in the dark, bats use a combination of different ultrasound wavelengths. The new corrosion detection system uses two different kinds of radiation, fast neutrons and gamma rays.

Ultrasonic or electromagnetic methods are typically used for finding corrosion in pipes, but the techniques don't work for underground pipes or pipes with concrete or plastic insulation. The new system works on all kinds of metal and composite pipes.

To locate corrosion, the system sends out the two radiation types and records the electrical signal they produce. The combination of electrical signals, called the backscatter, can be simultaneously recorded by the system's sensor.

The two radiation types complement each other. Neutrons interact with low-density materials like plastics and are capable of penetrating deep through different layers of material. Gamma rays interact with metals but can't penetrate as well.

When scientists tested the new technique on carbon-steel samples in the lab, the electrical signals produced by the radiation successfully revealed the varying thickness in each sample.

"The combined beams of neutrons and gamma rays in parallel bouncing back to an array of detectors yield a comprehensive and fast representation of the inner structure of steel," lead researcher Mauro Licata, a doctoral student in engineering at Lancaster University in Britain, said in a news release.

The addition of an insulating layer of concrete or plastic didn't interfere with the system's ability to image thickness.

"This system works a bit like the chirps made by bats. These chirps are a superposition of different ultrasound wavelengths, which bounce back to the bats' ears," Licata said. "As well as highlighting the benefits of combining multiple reflection sensing techniques to detect for problems such as corrosion, our work further illustrates the significant potential that can be had from taking inspiration from, and mimicking, systems that have evolved in the natural world."

Scientists described the new technology in a paper published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports. The research team is now working to make the backscatter sensor work faster.

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Cool post. One of the biggest ongoing opportunities in manufacturing. Pressure, temperature, amperage, vacuum and now maybe sound can be read and charted 24/7. Once normal is established a +/- warning will let the operator know instantly that something somewhere is changing. 
Obviously you need a sensor, wire and a computer or multiple computers. WiFi maybe someday can replace wire. 
This is one place government labs working with companies can develope this technology and drive down cost. 
I was actually promoting this idea over 20 years ago in the plastics industry. I can think of over 75 opportunities per extruded and downstream equipment for inputs to monitor that if problems were caught quickly and repaired scrap could have been diminished or have none at all. In my day it was easier to blame the poor operator for not catching bad product quicker.

If a cheap sound sensor was available, bearings are those tough to catch trouble spots bound to go out at some point. 

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