Technical University of Munich: neutrons may be the solution for detecting clogs in oil and gas pipelines underwater

Especially when a pipeline is idle for a longer time at low temperatures, hydrate plugs can form, similar to the methane hydrate core shown in the picture.
Image: Bill Schmoker (PolarTREC 2010), © ARCUS Polar Media Archive

(PRESS RELEASE) MÜNICH, 21-Jan-2022 — /EuropaWire/ — Technical University of Munich (TUM), a German public research university and one of Europe’s leading research universities, has announced that researchers at its Research Neutron Source Heinz Maier-Leibnitz (FRM II) may have found the perfect solution for detecting clogs and blockages in oil and gas pipelines underwater by relying on neutrons. According to Dr. Sophie Bouat, CEO of Science-S.A.V.E.D. (Scientific Analysis Vitalises Enterprise Development), by using prompt gamma neutron activation analysis can help detect very precisely light atoms and hydrogen in particular.

Oil and gas pipelines are the arteries of our energy supply. As with the Nord Stream pipelines, they transport the sources of energy over long distances underwater to storage and production facilities on land.

But it’s not just supply bottlenecks, as we have them now, that can lead to shortages. Under certain conditions, the mixture in the pipelines – which typically comprises gas, oil, and water – can become very viscous and even form solid phases.

Especially inconvenient for operators are solid hydrates that form from gas and water, for example when the mixture cools down to the low temperatures of the seabed during longer pipeline shutdowns.

Technicians clean pipes for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on board the offshore pipe-lay vessel Castoro Dieci during pipe-laying work in the Bay of Greifswald.
Image: © Nord Stream 2 / Paul Langrock

Previous approaches do not work underwater

For a clog to be remediated in-situ, the affected section of the pipeline must first be found. Localizing clogs from the outside is challenging, since they can form anywhere along the length of the pipeline.

To date, thermal imaging cameras and gamma rays are used to detect the clogs. However, neither of these methods works underwater. Ultrasound, on the other hand, has no problem penetrating water, but the hydrate blocks can only be detected at close range from outside the pipeline wall.

This constraint poses practical difficulties because underwater pipelines are laid at depths of up to 2000 meters and are often naturally covered by seabed materials like sand or silt. Another technical challenge associated with acoustic methods arises from the lack of a clear difference between the acoustic impedances of the hydrate phase and other phases of the crude oil mixture, which makes discrimination difficult.

Neutrons – the perfect probe

TechnipFMC, a company with around 20,000 employees worldwide that specializes in subsea pipelines, was “looking for a more efficient method to find the plugs in a non-contact, non-destructive and reliable way despite thick walls,” says Dr. Xavier Sebastian, a project manager at the company.

As suggested by Dr. Sophie Bouat, CEO of Science-S.A.V.E.D. (Scientific Analysis Vitalises Enterprise Development), “neutrons are the perfect probe for the task at hand.” She established the contact to the scientists at the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz-Zentrum in Garching near Munich.

“Using prompt gamma neutron activation analysis, light atoms and hydrogen in particular can be detected very precisely,” she continues. Since the hydrogen content of hydrates and normal oil or gas is considerably different, it should be possible to detect blockages by measuring the hydrogen concentration.

Feasibility study at FRM II

Dr. Ralph Gilles industry coordinator at the Research Neutron Source FRM II carried out a feasibility study on this topic together with other colleagues from the Technical University of Munich and the Forschungszentrum Jülich. Using the PGAA (Prompt Gamma Activation Analysis) instrument, which utilizes cold neutrons from FRM II, the researchers established that this approach can be used to differentiate between oil and gas and the blockage.

At the NECTAR radiography and tomography facility and the FaNGAS (fast neutron-induced gamma ray spectroscopy) instrument they used fast neutrons from FRM II to show that a sufficiently large number of neutrons penetrate the metal walls of the pipelines to facilitate the respective measurement, and that the measurement also works well underwater.

A small neutron source detects plugs

The results clearly demonstrate that neutrons are ideally suited for this application. Moreover, “our experiments have shown that we can even distinguish an incipient blockage from a fully developed one,” says Dr. Ralph Gilles. “That’s very beneficial, because then one can even preventatively heat a pipe segment to melt the blockage before it fully develops.”

In practice, a mobile detector with a small neutron source will move back and forth along the pipeline to look for plugs. “We are very pleased that, with the help of the measurements at the research neutron source, we have now found an efficient method that makes it much easier to detect these plugs in the future,” says Dr. Xavier Sebastian.


Sophie Bouat, Ludovic Pinier, Xavier Sebastian, Adrian Losko, Rudolf Schütz, Michael Schulz, Zsolt Revay, Zeljko Ilic, Eric Mauerhofer, Thomas Brückel & Ralph Gilles
Detection of hydrate plugs inside submarine pipelines using neutrons
Nondestructive Testing and Evaluation Oct 25, 2021 – DOI: 10.1080/10589759.2021.1990284

More information:

Besides scientists of the Technical University of Munich, researchers of Forschungszentrum Jülich and RWTH Aachen University contributed to the analysis. The contact to the company TechnipFMC was mediated through the company Science-S.A.V.E.D. (Scientific Analysis Vitalises Enterprise Development). Access for beam time was paid by TechnipFMC.

Media contacts:

Corporate Communications Center
Georgios Mantzaridis (FRM II) / Andreas Battenberg

Contacts to this article:
Dr. habil. Ralph Gilles
Industry Coordinator
Research Neutron Source Heinz Maier-Leibnitz (FRM II)
Technical University of Munich
Lichtenbergstr. 1, 85748 Garching, Germany
Tel.: +49 89 289 14665 – E-Mail

SOURCE: Technical University of Munich



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