Pipelines of the Future: Innovations in Natural Gas Transportation

February 14, 2024

Written By
Trellis Team

The natural gas industry plays a pivotal role in the global energy landscape and is set to continue doing so for decades.

As a cleaner alternative to coal and oil, it represents a crucial bridge in the transition to a lower carbon energy system.

As global energy demand grows—lifting millions of people out of poverty and ensuring an improved standard of living for billions more—so will the demand for natural gas. This creates a strong tailwind for innovations targeting safer, cleaner, and more reliable natural gas transportation.

In this post, we briefly explore some of the key issues and innovations poised to redefine how natural gas is transported and how that infrastructure is operated and maintained.

Advanced Materials and Pipeline Design

While many developments in materials science target high-tech sectors, such as semiconductors, solar, and batteries, the development of new alloys and composite materials are impacting pipeline construction and maintenance.

These materials offer enhanced durability and corrosion resistance, helping to extend pipeline lifespan and reduce maintenance requirements.

Modular and flexible pipeline systems represent an important shift in construction methodologies, delivering the adaptability needed to meet changing pipeline demands and repair challenges. For example, FlexSteel Pipeline Technologies delivers flexible pipe solutions that are both corrosion-resistant and durable under extreme conditions.

Additionally, pipeline operators are investigating and adopting more eco-friendly construction materials in alignment with the broader industry’s commitment to minimizing environmental footprint.


Leak Detection Technologies

Leak detection is a critical element of pipeline management, directly impacting safety and environmental impact.

Fiber optic sensing technology has been evolving for several decades. More recent developments in time series data handling and interpretation mean it is now realizing its potential for real-time asset monitoring across vast distances and identifying potential issues before they escalate.

The latest distributed acoustic sensors can detect the faintest whispers of escaping gas, ensuring that even minor leaks are detected and addressed in a timely manner.

Aerial surveillance using both drones and satellite technology also allow infrastructure operators to monitor their entire networks and to respond rapidly to anomalies.

AI and machine learning algorithms are merging and transforming each of these data streams into predictive insights, identifying potential leak points before they fail with remarkable accuracy.


Automation and Robotics in Pipeline Maintenance

Robotics and automation are redefining pipe and vessel maintenance at all points along the hydrocarbon production and processing value stream. They can dramatically improve efficiency while reducing human exposure to hazardous conditions.

Micro robotic inspection devices can traverse pipelines with ease, conducting thorough assessments without disrupting service. Major players such as TransCanada are deploying robotic inspection devices, such as the SmartBall and PipeDiver from Pure Technologies, to perform in-depth inspections without disrupting pipeline operations.

The next generation of bots will assess and address pipeline defects and leaks, performing in situ repairs where possible to minimize downtime and further damage. Projects including the EU-funded PIPECRAWLER have showcased the potential for bots to perform repairs in situ, reducing human exposure to dangerous conditions.

In combination with AI/ML-driven predictive maintenance software, this will optimize maintenance schedules, minimize the need for costly and disruptive human intervention, and prevent incidents before they occur.


Environmental Impact Reduction

The intersection of natural gas transportation and renewable energy provides several opportunities for the industry to adapt and demonstrate its commitment to sustainability.

Carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) is being factored into pipeline operations.

Solar and wind power are being deployed to directly offset the carbon footprint of pipeline operations.

Advanced routing technologies and construction methods, water protection measures, and rehabilitation programs have been developed to help preserve ecosystems and minimize the impact of pipelines on land use and biodiversity.

The blending of hydrogen into natural gas for transportation over the existing pipeline network (which we wrote about here) and the transportation of renewable natural gas (RNG, biogas) through the natural gas network are further examples of the industry playing an increasing role in the circular economy.


Regulatory and Safety Developments

Regulatory frameworks play a fundamental role in guiding the adoption of safety practices and technological innovations.

Both standards and the underlying regulatory support must continue to evolve to create an environment where innovation can thrive.

Recent updates to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulations in the United States aim to enhance the safety of gas transmission pipelines, reflecting a global trend towards stricter safety standards.

A new dimension to this puzzle is the need for international cooperation on cybersecurity, where detection and mitigation measures are increasingly important to ensuring the protection and reliability of critical infrastructure from both physical and digital threats.


Addressing Ageing Infrastructure

The future of natural gas transportation isn’t all about building cool new stuff. Ageing infrastructure poses a significant challenge to the safety and efficiency of the network.

Many pipelines in operation today were constructed in the mid-20th century, with a substantial portion of the United States' 2.5 million miles of pipelines being more than 50 years old.

As pipelines age, they become more susceptible to corrosion, leaks, and failures, raising concerns over environmental safety and supply reliability.

To address these challenges, industry leaders and regulatory bodies are investing heavily in pipeline integrity management programs, which include regular inspections, maintenance, and upgrades using some of the advanced technologies we have discussed.

Regulatory frameworks have also evolved to address the risks associated with older pipelines. The PHMSA has issued regulations requiring more rigorous testing and verification of pipeline integrity, especially for those located in densely populated or environmentally sensitive areas.

These efforts are complemented by industry-wide initiatives to share knowledge and best practices for managing ageing infrastructure, as seen in forums and collaborations facilitated by organizations such as the American Gas Association (AGA) and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA).

A combination of technological innovation, regulatory oversight, and industry collaboration will be needed to extend the working life of ageing pipelines, ensure their continued safe operation, and maintain the reliability of the natural gas supply network.


The Role of Policy and Investment in Pipeline Innovation

The future of natural gas transportation is inextricably linked to policy and innovation funding.

Whether targeted at non-hydrocarbon generation, energy storage, or existing sectors such as natural gas production and transportation, government policies and incentives, such as the U.S. Department of Energy's funding for natural gas technology research, are crucial for fundamental research.

Only once the blue-sky work has been successfully completed can public-private partnerships contribute the financial backing needed to bring the resulting innovations to market.

Given its scope and scale, the natural gas industry also relies on international standards to facilitate the global exchange of technology and best practices.

And continued investment in education and training is needed to ensure a skilled workforce capable of implementing and maintaining existing and future systems.


In Conclusion

Multiple areas of innovation are transforming natural gas pipelines and setting new standards for safety, efficiency, and environmental performance.

These are necessary developments as the industry embraces its vital role at the forefront of a sustainable energy future.

The journey ahead will depend on collaboration and investment, continuous improvement and adaptation—things that the natural gas industry has been practicing for years.


At Trellis Energy, we believe that a modern natural gas supply chain should be digital, efficient, and easy to manage, ensuring the delivery of clean energy when and where it’s needed. We’re in business to make that a reality for natural gas in North America.

Talk to us about Digital Simplification for your climate, trading, and logistics goals.

Image credit: Sorasak on Unsplash


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