A new probing device that uses microwaves to “see” corrosive particles called black powder in pipelines that transport natural gas could help avoid the costly plant shutdowns, production losses and expensive repairs often caused by the material.

“Our detection device is capable of sensing the presence of black powder in real-time and can quantify its concentration without disturbing the gas flow, which is an important step towards developing cost-effective pipeline maintenance protocols,” explained Dr. Mohamed Abou-Khousa, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering.

Dr. Abou-Khousa is part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the Khalifa University of Science and Technology who are developing the probing device. Dr. Mohamed Alshehhi, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering is the project’s Principal Investigator, while other team members include Dr. Khaled Al-Wahedi, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Dr. Ahmed Al-Durra, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering, as well as several engineers from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company’s (ADNOC) Gas Processing team. The research is sponsored by the Gas Processing and Material Science Research Centre (GRC), which was established by The Petroleum Institute, now part of Khalifa University of Science and Technology, with the support of ADNOC, ADNOC Gas Processing, Shell Abu Dhabi B.V., Total S.A. and Partex Gas Corporation.

Black powder is a contaminant composed of iron sulfides and iron oxides and poses a major operational problem for the natural gas industry because it can cause corrosion, damage equipment and reduce gas flow through pipes. Black powder can significantly degrade the quality of natural gas and can present a major health and environment hazard.

As the cleanest burning hydrocarbon, natural gas plays an important role in the UAE’s energy mix as well as the global energy mix. Natural gas currently provides nearly all of the fuel for power generation in the UAE and is expected to provide over 25% of the world’s energy by 2035, according to a recent World Energy Outlook report. The rising global gas demand underscores the need for advanced technologies that can reduce natural gas processing costs and improve the quality of natural gas feedstocks, which is exactly what the team’s black powder detection device aims to do.

Current methods for detecting black powder require third-party service companies to tap into the gas flow with a special fitting device and collect samples of the gas manually for testing. Because built-in provision for gas sampling are typically not included in the design of the pipeline networks, sampling is performed by third-party service companies and samples are sent overseas for analysis. This cumbersome method is inefficient and does not provide real-time measurements, which are critically needed to develop effective protocols and early detection to reduce black powder buildup.

Realizing the need for a more efficient way to detect, manage and control black powder in natural gas pipelines, Dr. Abou-Khousa’s team developed a novel probing device that uses microwaves, or high frequency radio waves, to transmit and receive signals inside natural gas pipelines, enabling the transceiver to “see,” or sense, the black powder inside the pipes in real-time.

The probe is able to overcome limitations posed by previous microwave-based sensing technologies because it can measure several parameters of the received radio signals simultaneously (that is, after the signals bounce off the black powder and other fluids in the pipeline and travel back to the probe), including their power, phase, and frequency. Additionally, the probe’s low-power requirement and durable, air-tight sealed casing enables it to operate in hazardous locations and in high-pressure points.

“Currently, there is no commercially available system devised for this critical sensing application. Our device is the first of its kind in the region to be developed locally and certified to the highest instrument safety standards,” Dr. Abou-Khousa said.

The detection device was recently declared in compliance with the 2014/34/EU directive, which means that it is ATEX certified. ATEX is a European regulatory framework that controls what equipment can be placed on the market to use in hazardous and potentially explosive atmospheres.

The innovative device was assessed for its commercial viability by 360ip, an international intellectual property (IP)/technology investment, fund management, advisory services and commercialization company. A patent was also filed with the United States Trademark and Patents Office (USPTO), as well as in GCC countries, Canada and China, which is the first major step towards commercializing the invention.

The operation of the device is set to be demonstrated in one of ADNOC’s customer receiving stations in Abu Dhabi in early 2018, where validation of the probe’s performance will be established via thorough field tests. Currently, the team is working closely with ADNOC to finalize the demonstration site and obtain the required technical authority approvals.
Since the research began in 2011, the technology has been highlighted in two papers, both published in the prestigious IEEE Sensors Journal, and four international conferences. Earlier this year, the research received Abu Dhabi’s Department of Economic Development recognition during its inaugural “Inventors Majlis.”

Dr. Abou-Khousa believes the achievements of his team will help to strengthen the research and development infrastructure of the UAE, particularly in the field of microwave sensors for industrial applications.

“The adopted technology development model, project plan and acquired know-how will facilitate future local development and technology transfer efforts. The R&D infrastructure developed during the execution of this project is truly one-of-a-kind and will serve as a valuable asset for microwave and millimeter wave research within the UAE,” Dr. Abou-Khousa shared.

Research projects like this one, which provides the UAE with a valuable tool for achieving significant cost savings in its oil and gas sector, demonstrate the Khalifa University of Science and Technology’s commitment to building a portfolio of strong IP that will provide economic benefit to Abu Dhabi and the UAE.

Source : Masdar Institute