Fixing leaking pipelines can be tricky and expensive. But now engineers at a company in Aberdeen, Scotland, have developed a novel way to get the job done. It involves using artificial platelets inspired by the way our blood clots when we get cut.
The platelets, actually small pieces of polymeric or elastomeric material, are introduced into the pipeline upstream and use the flow of the fluid to carry them down the pipe toward the leak. There the pressure forcing the fluid out of the leak causes the platelets to amass at the point of rupture, clogging up the escaping fluid in the process, says Klaire Evans, sales and marketing engineer with Brinker Technology, which is developing the technology.
The method has been tested on a handful of pipelines owned by BP and Shell. According to Sandy Meldrum, an engineer with BP, in Aberdeen, the technology was used to fix a leak in an undersea water injection pipe at an oil field near the Scottish Shetland Isles. Normally this kind of leak would have to be fixed using remotely operated vehicles, whose operators would place a clamp over the leak. But by using Brinker’s technology, BP saved about $3 million, says Meldrum.
The idea for the platelets originally came from Ian McEwan, an engineer at the University of Aberdeen and director and founder of Brinker, when he was sitting on a train and accidentally cut his finger. He wondered whether the ability of the human body to seal cuts could be applied to pipelines.
Leaks are an ongoing problem for the oil industry, says Ray Burke, a projects engineer with Shell, also in Aberdeen. There are many methods of plugging the leaks in steel pipes, he says, depending on whether the pipe is on land or under the sea. Many of the methods involve having to shut down sections of pipeline. But all methods are expensive, running to at least $200,000 a day.