Arlington Researchers Are Advancing the Detection and Handling of Natural Gas Leaks

January 5, 2019


Work is underway at the University of Texas at Arlington to find more sensitive ways to detect natural gas leaks from pipelines, and to predict how the leakage of gas will act under geological conditions.

When gas leaks from an underground pipeline it doesn’t immediately find a way to the surface and can often be pocketed underground, leading to dangerous situations for gas and pipeline companies and first responders checking for leaks.

UTA Associate Professor for the Civil Engineering Department Kathleen Smits is heading research to find the best way to predict how gas leaks might be found, neutralized and fixed.

Smits says today’s methods of detecting leaks because methods aren’t consistent, technologies are not sensitive enough to find where the gas is flowing — and because “there’s a general denial that there’s a problem.”

The research — under a $414,000 grant from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — is part of a co-operative agreement with Colorado State University and the Texas Railroad Commission, along with Colorado’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“Natural gas has led to several deadly explosions in the past few years that could have potentially been avoided if there was a better understanding of how gas acts when it leaks from a pipe and how to better detect it,” UTA Civil Engineering Department Chair Ali Abolmaali said of the research.

“Dr. Smits and her team have done excellent work in their research, and in getting cooperation from industry to apply their findings in a way that could save lives and property.”

The team is working with partners in the pipeline industry and among gas service providers.

Smits and her colleague Dan Zimmerle of CSU, told Britain’s EurekAlert that they’ve created a pipeline test bed where they can control leakage from a pipeline so the researchers can study subsurface conditions, moisture, gas leakage rates and surface conditions, using sensors to see how gas moves underground, find potential pockets that may trap gas and measure how gas disperses when it reaches the surface.

So far, the team has collected enough data to predict how gas will perform under certain subsurface scenarios and how the atmosphere might affect where the gas travels.

Now Smit is applying the data to create an algorithm to be used by first responders in the field to measure and analyze possible leaks.