UTA research to provide real-time data on gas leaks

Kathleen Smits

An associate professor of civil engineering at The University of Texas at Arlington is developing a gas-sensing protocol to help industry and regulators monitor underground natural gas leaks in real time.

Kathleen Smits recently received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to monitor known gas leaks in urban and rural pipelines, help assess their severity, and determine what to do about them.

Using an innovative data network, monitors will be able to quantify the leak rate, how the gas is moving and other key indicators in real time so companies can make critical decisions about how to address the situation.

“Our approach will link constantly changing information from the environment, such as temperature, humidity and wind speed, with gas concentration readings,” Smits said. “We can then understand if the leak itself has gotten bigger or migrated.

“Near-real time monitoring of active below-ground leakages hasn’t been widely done. It’s not just about elevated concentrations of natural gas, but what additional environmental information can be provided about the leak to help industry understand the situation and develop a plan to deal with it.”

Smits will tap into a network of sensors that alerts her team when there is a gas leak and what the released gas is doing. Monitoring in real time can help the team to understand any change.

Her research will also examine:

• Reoccurrence of leaks. Her monitoring protocols could help them determine if there are multiple leaks, if a line needs to be replaced, or if the gas is moving toward a populated area.

• Increased urbanization. As cities expand into what were previously rural areas, pipelines are now closer to homes. There is an increased need to monitor those pipelines to ensure that there aren’t any issues created by additional activity.

• Repaired leaks that continue to vent. The team can determine when a critical amount of gas is out of the ground so the surrounding area can safely return to normal.

Field work for project of Kathleen Smits, UTA assistant professor.

Smits and her collaborators at Colorado State University’s Energy Institute have worked closely with gas and pipeline companies to develop new solutions to energy issues and determine the needs of industry for future research. Industry benefits from the collaboration because companies are able to better serve customers and provide greater assurances of safety.

“Natural gas pipelines are an important part of our infrastructure, and the ability for industry to monitor leaks and make informed decisions based on up-to-the-minute data is crucial for safety and for the environment,” said Ali Abolmaali, chair of UTA’s Civil Engineering Department. “Dr. Smits continues to be on the leading edge of research in this area, and her contributions are very important for the continued safe delivery of natural gas to homes and businesses.”

– Written by Jeremy Agor, College of Engineering

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