Robots - part 1

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Shale Environmental Technology Review A weblog reviewing environmental technologies used in shale gas and oil exploration and production with special emphasis on applications in the northeastern U.S. Filed underMarcellus shale Thomas Copley

Hello. I am Editor-in-chief of and have served in that capacity since 2008. It is the first wiki to cover developments in the Marcellus shale play. My interest in chronicling and following the evolution of the natural gas industry in the Marcellus shale dates to being part owner of some family mineral interests in the heart of West Virginia's shale gas region. I have had a diverse background in business including executive level positions at two major corporations, in marketing research (Bank of America), and strategic planning and product management (NCR Corporation). I was also involved in the start-up of The Electronic University, an innovative San Francisco telelarning project. Prior to that, I served on the faculties of Wilkes College (Wilkes-Barre, PA), Washington State University (Pullman, WA), and Antioch College (Yellow Springs, OH), the latter of which I was Associate Professor of Management for several years. Should you have questions or concerns, please email me at Thomas Copley's profile ยป Tags

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November 13, 2011 Robots To The Rescue In The Marcellus Shale, Pt. 1

The field of robotics is making a contribution to addressing environmental concerns in developing the Marcellus shale and other shale plays around the world. PIGbots and well tractors will probably never become household words, yet they are starting to make a difference when it comes to controlling air and water pollution associated with shale gas drilling, production, and transportation.

Much attention has been focused on safety issues with the rapid expansion of well drilling and natural gas production in those states under-girded by the natural-gas-rich Marcellus shale layer of rock, generally found at depths ranging between 5,000 to 7,500 feet. The Academy-Award-nominated documentary film, Gasland, among other things, focused on methane leaks caused by poorly-cemented well casings in a handful of Dimock, PA, Marcellus-shale wells.

These engineering failures led local residents to believe that natural gas drilling in the area, conducted by Cabot Oil & Gas Company, was responsible for their well water becoming infused with methane gas and thus made flammable, and possibly even deserved blame for one household explosion that happened there. Similarly, it has become clear that pipeline transportation systems for moving natural gas from wellhead to industrial and residential users leak; and some might even say, "like a sieve". Roughly 1.5% of natural gas disappears into the atmosphere between its point of production and the places where it is ultimately burned.

Drilling and casing pipes used in drilling deep wells consist of steel tubes in varying dimensions.This they have in common with transportation pipelines, which move natural gas across country. Both are underground and not readily subject to inspection. Older, city pipelines are often cast-iron, and subject to corrosion. Should an issue develop underground, there is no way for a human inspector to directly observe the problem or to intervene. Over the years, the industry has evolved various technologies for monitoring and intervening in well and transportation pipes. For example, in a well, coiled tubing is often used to pump chemicals down a well, or for various other purposes. Similarly, so called "Pipeline Inspection Gauges," or PIGs, may be used to perform various pipeline maintenance tasks, such as cleaning and inspecting pipelines, without ever stopping the flow of gas. Inspection, monitoring, and intervention tasks are increasingly being performed by robotic devices such as "smart PIGs" or "PIGbots".

Also, in well drilling pipes, while the well remains under pressure, monitoring and intervention can be handled by remote-controlled robotic devices called "well tractors," electronically connected through a wire to an operator console.

Well_tractor Well_tractor_photo Photos of Welltec robotic "well tractors" - Courtesy of Welltec

Increasingly PIGbots and well tractors have become mobile platforms that employ a variety of technologies. For example, PIGbots may include ultrasonics, backscatter X-ray, fish-eye cameras, and light-weight electromechanic coils for measuring changes in magnetized pipe walls to detect pipeline damage and corrosion, as well as tools for welding and applying protective epoxy to corroded spots in pipe.

From the standpoint of natural gas producers and pipeline operators, losing a percentage as big as 1.5% of the volume produced and transported can have an immediate bottom line consequence. Leakage can also have deleterious environmental impacts as well. For example, soil around trees in urban areas near gas leaks may become saturated with methane, driving out oxygen in the soil, and thus depriving the fine roots of trees and plants of the oxygen they need. Once the fine roots go, entire root systems can die off, and plants are deprived of water and soil nutrients needed for survival and growth. This contributes to urban blight through dead and dying vegetatipn. Should methane levels rise high enough, there is even the risk of gas explosions and the ensuing liability that a pipeline operator could incur.

Effective and efficient robotic tools are becoming increasingly important to operators in minimizing methane leakage and helping to mitigate any environmental impacts.

(Continued in Part 2) Filed under //

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