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The Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota (UND), in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), has begun working on a project to help improve the safety of the nation’s energy transportation pipelines.

DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) awarded a total of $2 million to 11 different institutions through its Competitive Academic Agreement Program (CAAP), which more than doubles the amount that was awarded last year.

“The CAAP Program pays for critical research into safety technologies and mechanisms that could improve safety throughout the entire pipeline sector,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a recent press release. “These investments have contributed to new pipeline technologies that are being used across the country to improve pipeline safety.”

The EERC’s specific project involves evaluating the potential for using specially engineered metal foil to facilitate locating plastic pipelines once buried underground. According to PHMSA, over 69% of the nation’s 2.149 million miles of natural gas distribution pipelines are plastic, and unlike metal piping, plastic pipes have no intrinsic electrical or magnetic properties that can be used to accurately locate them once buried. As a result, accidental excavation damage is the leading cause of reportable incidents for natural gas pipelines.

“These foils have unique material properties that we will use to our advantage to add a detectable signature to plastic pipes while using the least quantity and cost of added material,” said Chris Martin, Senior Research Engineer, Advanced Thermal Systems. “If successful, the resulting signature will be as strong as with conventional pipe, which would make the technology compatible with commercially available locating equipment.”

Martin says the EERC will also examine the commercial potential for this pipeline locating system, looking at added cost, pipe integration, and potential value-added features such as a unique identification pattern.

The $125,000 project is being conducted in partnership with Metglas, Inc., Conway, South Carolina, the world leader in amorphous metal foil production.

In addition to stimulating innovative research, CAAP promotes the involvement of student researchers to illustrate how their engineering or technical disciplines are highly needed in the field of pipeline safety. As part of its project, the EERC will also recruit and hire a UND student to be integrally involved with the experimental data collection and the larger concept evaluation.

“The pipeline infrastructure in the United States is key to our standard of living. It’s very important that pipes are safely maintained and appropriately expanded to sustain increasing demand,” said EERC CEO Tom Erickson. “Research such as this plays a key role in making national, regional, and local pipelines safer and more environmentally friendly.”

The EERC recently completed a comprehensive study of the oil and produced water gathering pipeline network in North Dakota. The intent of the study is to improve the performance of produced water and crude oil pipelines in North Dakota, with the purpose of supporting the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s decisions regarding possible adoption of administrative rules impacting pipeline safety and integrity.

View the complete study here.