More than a decade ago, while employed by a global oilfield service and supply company, John Hull was wondering how the systems then-in-use for monitoring fluid flow through things like pipelines and wellbores could be made more accurate. Hull is an electrical engineer and innovator with years of experience working with sensor systems in the oil and gas industry.
Hull saw that the best sensor systems were based on telecommunications fiber optics. However even the best struggled to produce the kind of crisp, clear signals that could accurately sense what was going on behind layers of cement and steel casing (in the case of wellbores).
“Light is extremely capable for monitoring, but because of the limitations we were working with at the time, light wasn’t giving us the fidelity that was needed for what we wanted to do—it was too noisy, it was too difficult to understand,” Hull says.
What was needed—and what he developed later on, after quitting the service company and working in his garage evenings and weekends for nearly two years—was a completely redesigned optical architecture of the telecommunications fibers, to make better, more efficient use of the light traveling through the fiber.
“We knew the solution was there—it just took a few years of tweaking and fine-tuning it to get it to work,” he says. “Once we realized we could get a higher-fidelity signal, we knew we finally had something.”
The innovation inspired Hull to found Hifi Engineering in 2007. He knew he was onto a breakthrough technology that had the potential to revolutionize both pipeline and wellbore monitoring.
What Hull discovered in his garage was that if the fiber optics were designed with etched glass to control certain wavelengths of light to be passed through or blocked, the fiber optic could act as a distributed sensor, with the ability to measure (with great sensitivity) parameters such as sound, temperature, strain and vibration, along their entire length.
“We knew the solution was there—it just took a few years of tweaking and fine-tuning it to get it to work.”John Hull, Founder & CTO, Hifi Engineering
Strap that fiber optic to a wellbore or pipeline and conditions along the length of the pipe can be monitored for temperature changes as little as 0.001 degree Celsius, for strain, vibrations or movement down to a micrometre of displacement, and for the sound of gas or liquid escaping from a pinhole leak.
Up until Calgary-based Hifi developed this high-fidelity dynamic sensing (HDS) technology, the use of fiber optics in the oil and gas industry had been limited to what Hifi CEO Steven Koles calls big, loud, trip-wire events—seismic recording and hydraulic fracturing, for example—that move large volumes of data quickly through low-fidelity telecommunication fibers.
“But to pick up a pin-hole leak in a slack-mode, low-pressure pipeline is a very tricky thing to do, and that is why you need the high signal-to-noise ratio that these specialized fiber optics provide,” Koles says.
“One thing about a leak is it will sound like a leak, but there will also be a pressure movement of the pipe and some sort of temperature event, either a slight cooling as gas escapes or a slight warming as liquid escapes,” Koles explains. “With the high-fidelity distributed sensing that HDS offers, we can accurately look for all three markers and be 100 per cent certain that what we are calling a leak is, in fact, a leak.”
Kole notes that this is a potential step change in pipeline leak detection, particularly in its ability to eliminate false positive alarms.
“Existing leak detection at pipeline control rooms can generate many false positives in a single day,” Koles says. “Our specification is less than one false positive per month, and we’re not even close to seeing that.”
“Our specification is less than one false positive per month, and we’re not even close to seeing that.”Steven Koles, CEO, Hifi Engineering
Koles, spent the early part of his career in the tech and telecommunications sector, and then with Steeper Energy, a Calgary-based, biofuels start-up. While at Steeper, he heard about an opportunity at Hifi and was attracted by the possibility of working with the company.
“It was a great opportunity to help bring innovation into this sector,” he notes.
The HDS technology is backed by 41 patents and its accuracy has been independently tested under C-FER Technologies’ External Leak Detection System Evaluation Program at Edmonton and by C-CORE, the Canadian research and development corporation based at Memorial University in Newfoundland, where the testing found the HDS technology to perform with 100 per cent accuracy.
Although the technology was initially developed for use in wells—Cenovus began using it early on to monitor steam injection at its SAGD operations—Enbridge soon recognized its potential as a permanent, fully-distributed monitoring system for oil and gas pipelines.
Eventually, the two companies acquired a combined 30 per cent equity interest in Hifi—an investment that essentially changed the company’s trajectory, Koles says.
“That was when a strategic decision was made to use the proceeds of those equity investments from Cenovus and Enbridge to pivot our focus to the pipeline sector,” he says.
HDS is starting to take hold in Canada, where it has been deployed by companies like Enbridge, Husky Energy, Plains Midstream and Kinder Morgan, as well as in the United States, where Hifi has a number of projects with pipeline operators including ExxonMobil. Recently, Enbridge installed the technology on a 32-kilometre segment of its Norlite diluent line, between Edmonton and Fort McMurray, while TransCanada will install it next year at either end of its Keystone pipeline, which carries oilsands crude from Hardisty, Alberta to Houston, Texas. But Hull, Koles and Hifi have even loftier ambitions: they want HDS to be the industry standard for monitoring and leak detection, installed on every pipeline in the world.