LSU's Pipeline Leak Detection Technology Could Save Energy Companies Millions

April 02, 2024


Jyotsna Sharma headshot

Jyotsna Sharma, Devon Energy Career Development Professor

A fiber optics-powered breakthrough discovery could quickly and accurately identify pipeline leaks, preventing potentially significant environmental damage and saving the oil and gas industry billions of dollars a year.

“Oil and gas pipeline leaks have enormous economic and environmental costs. The energy industry spends more than $3 billion each year on leak detection, but costs, labor and accuracy limit the current methods,” said Jyotsna Sharma, LSU petroleum engineering professor. “The most common way to detect leaks is with pressure gauges, but this method is unable to localize and detect small leaks.”

Existing gauges show a pressure drop if the leak is large enough. But with the gauges spaced far apart, even miles from each other, there is no way to know where the pipeline is leaking, Sharma said. Meanwhile, small leaks remain invisible, and environmental damage builds up over time.  

Sharma’s invention harnesses the power of Fiber Bragg Grating combined with advanced signal processing algorithms. Fiber optic sensors measure stress, vibrations, temperature changes and pressure.  

Sharma said Fiber Bragg Grating has been used before to detect pipeline leaks. But the sensors are so sensitive that the wind or even a person walking near the pipeline can trigger a vibration signal that could be misinterpreted as a leak. Sharma’s software extracts useful data about leaks and eliminates the “noise” and resulting false alarms. The system can also measure the size of the leak, which makes it much easier to prioritize repairs. The end result? Pipeline companies spend their resources on real leaks, saving money and time. 

The fiber optic line can be installed quickly, either along the entire length of the pipeline or at key junctures that are more susceptible to leaks or in more environmentally sensitive areas. 

In addition to billions spent on inaccurate leak detection systems, oil and gas companies worldwide dedicate around $17 billion a year to repair pipelines, and that does not include the cost of environmental remediation or fines. Leak detection and repair costs are expected to rise as companies invest in production and storage facilities, build new pipelines and address leaks in existing infrastructure. 

Fiber offers other advantages.  

  • The technology detects the leaks in real time, reducing incident response times.
  • Fiber Bragg Grating sensors can be distributed over long distances and monitored remotely.
  • The sensors are durable and withstand harsh pipeline environments.

Sharma is working with the LSU Office of Innovation & Technology Commercialization, part of LSU Innovation & Ecosystem Development, to patent her technology. She wanted to publish a scientific paper with her findings while also protecting her discovery. Innovation & Technology Commercialization helped her file for a patent in just 30 days. 

“LSU is thrilled to be part of unlocking new possibilities in pipeline safety,” said Robert Twilley, vice president of research and economic development. “Precise, real-time monitoring and accurate leak detection represent a critical advance in the energy industry’s efforts to protect the environment and energy transportation and storage systems.” 

Grace Myers, commercialization officer with LSU Innovation & Technology Commercialization, said the potential market for the leak detection system is quite large.

“We’re looking forward to helping Dr. Sharma move her invention from the concept phase into the marketplace,” Myers said.

About LSU’s Office of Innovation & Technology Commercialization

LSU’s Office of Innovation & Technology Commercialization (ITC) protects and commercializes LSU’s intellectual property. The office focuses on transferring early-stage inventions and works into the marketplace for the greater benefit of society. ITC also handles federal invention reporting, which allows LSU to receive hundreds of millions of dollars each year in federally funded research, and processes confidentiality agreements, material transfer agreements, and other agreements related to intellectual property.

About LSU’s Office of Innovation & Ecosystem Development

LSU Innovation unites the university’s innovation and commercialization resources under one office, maximizing LSU's impact on the intellectual, economic, and social development of Louisiana and beyond. LSU Innovation is focused on establishing, developing, and growing technology-based startup companies. LSU Innovation oversees LSU Innovation Park, a 200-acre business incubator that fosters early-stage tech companies, and the Office of Innovation & Technology Commercialization, which streamlines the process of evaluating, protecting, and licensing intellectual property created by LSU researchers. LSU Innovation serves as the host organization for the Louisiana Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Network which oversees all SBDC services across the state as well as the LSU SBDC, which provides free consulting services to small businesses across the state. LSU Innovation helps Louisiana technology companies apply for seed funding through the federal Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grant programs. LSU Innovation educates faculty, students, and the community on entrepreneurial principles through the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program which trains innovators to consider the market opportunities for pressing scientific questions, leading to increased funding state and federal grant programs as well as potential industry partners and licensees.