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Pipeline design for a safer future

JUST AFTER 6pm on 9 September 2010, a massive explosion rocked the Californian suburb of San Bruno. Within seconds, a house was engulfed in flames. More homes were soon burning ferociously. The cause was unknown for almost an hour. Some residents thought a plane had crashed at nearby San Francisco Airport. Others believed there had been an earthquake, as San Bruno lies close to the San Andreas Fault.

In fact, a 76 cm gas transmission pipeline had ruptured, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes.

Professor Valerie Linton, CEO of the Energy Pipelines CRC (EPCRC), has a mission to make sure such a pipeline disaster never happens in Australia.

“We’ve got a safety record at least an order of magnitude better than any other country in terms of our operation of energy pipelines. And we want to make sure it stays that way,” she says. “There’s always a risk that somebody gets overly enthusiastic with a digger and makes a hole or fracture in a pipeline. In the worst case, the fracture ‘unzips’ along the pipe. Our researchers have been working to ‘design out’ the possibility of fractures occurring, and that work has been exceptional.”

An Australian gas pipeline being lowered into its trench.
An Australian gas pipeline being lowered into its trench.

The EPCRC is a collaboration between four universities, the Australian Government and members of the Australian Pipeline Industry Association. One particularly significant product of its research is the recently released computer software called EPDECOM, which Linton describes as a leader in its field. Pipeline designers can use the software to determine the steel properties needed to enable the pipeline to withstand damage.

“North American fracture control experts have independently assessed EPDECOM, and it performs better than any other software available,” says Linton.

The CRC is also helping to improve Australian Standard AS2885 that applies to the pipeline industry. This relates to the design, construction, testing, operations and maintenance of gas and petroleum pipelines that operate at pressures above 1050 kPa.

“One of the most direct ways we can influence pipeline safety is to make sure our research findings get incorporated into upgrades of AS2885,” explains Linton.

An independent testing and research laboratory specialising in pipeline coatings opened in March 2104 at Deakin University – a CRC partner. Testing the integrity of pipeline coatings is vital if pipes are to be protected from corrosion.

While much of the EPCRC’s work is in engineering, social science also plays a central role. Dr Jan Hayes, Program Leader for Public Safety and Security of Supply, says inquiries into most accidents do not reveal new types of equipment failure. Usually the technological issues are already understood, but the knowledge isn’t applied because of social issues within organisations.

One of Hayes’ key goals is to harness the learning from pipeline incidents around the world. Hayes has co-authored a book: Nightmare Pipeline Failures: Fantasy Planning, Black Swans And Integrity Management. Its intended audience is senior executives in energy and chemical companies, but it will be publicly available and Linton describes it as “very readable”. The CRC funded Hayes’ research on the San Bruno disaster, which is included in the book. It’s another step towards keeping Australian energy pipelines safe