Northern Gas Networks, the gas distributor for the North of England, has published its latest Innovation Report, highlighting an ambitious range of innovation projects which feature everything from gas pipes that can ‘talk’ to us, to light rays that can detect compounds within natural gas.
During 2019/20, innovation enabled us to reduce the number of holes that we needed to dig by at least 3086, and to also reduce the amount of soil from excavations that needed to be sent to landfill sites.
No one likes roadworks. But our work to improve how we locate, anticipate and solve issues on the network, such as gas leaks or water getting into the pipes, brings clear benefits for our customers.
Our award-winning robot, nicknamed STAN, has been developed in partnership with suppliers Synthotech. It can go down into mains pipe work to be our eyes and ears underground; moving through the pipes to record and send back a range of diagnostic information about their condition, enabling NGN to pinpoint leaks with even more accuracy and speed, and on top of this it can even repair leaks in joints.
Another innovation highlighted in the report is the development of a working prototype with suppliers HP1 Technologies Limited of a low-cost, printable sensor that can be incorporated into existing gas pipe components and feeds back data from underground; essentially ‘talking’ to our engineers. The sensor makes it quicker, cheaper and easier to identify and then fix problems on the network, such as water creeping into our network.
Our nose for innovation is also at the forefront of our project to monitor gas odorant. Natural gas has no smell, so an odour is added: the smell that we are so familiar with, which helps alert customers to potential gas escapes and issues with appliances such as boilers.
To check that there is the right quantity of odour in the gas, NGN employs trained ‘gas sniffers’; people with highly sensitive noses. But they can only take a snapshot at any one time: what NGN needed was a way to monitor levels 24-hours-a-day.
Working alongside the EIC with supplier The Camlin Group, NGN is piloting a technique called optical spectroscopy, which uses light rays to accurately detect the level of odorant within a gas around the clock.
The report also demonstrates how technological innovation is helping NGN to decarbonise the network and develop the green fuels of the future, in support of the Government’s plan to transform the UK to a net zero carbon economy by 2050.
Richard Hynes-Cooper, Head of Innovation at Northern Gas Networks, said: “As we move away from carbon-based fuels towards a greener gas network, innovation has a crucial part to play in developing new sources of energy for the future.
“Hydrogen and biomethane are both potential green fuels of the future, and NGN already has an established biomethane programme, working with suppliers across our region, but we want to continuously improve the service we can offer.
“So we are working with technology company Utonomy and using Innovate UK funding to make it easier for biomethane producers to get their product into our network and increase the amount of green gas in our pipes.
“During periods of low demand, biomethane producers can struggle to inject their gas, as there is no room on the network. This excess biomethane then has to be flared, resulting in lost income.
“By remotely controlling gas pressure on our medium pressure network, we can create room for biomethane to be injected.”
The majority of the funding for NGN’s 2019/20 innovation projects comes from the regulator, Ofgem, through its Network Innovation Allowance (NIA). NGN has invested the full £2.9 million of its 2019/20 NIA allocation, completing 16 of our ongoing projects, and launching 15 new projects, 13 of which are NIA funded.
To read the full report, please visit www.northerngasnetworks.co.uk/document-library and go to the section titled ‘The Future’.
Case study – Project Zero
Northern Gas Networks (NGN) is launching an innovative new process to replace gas pipes without the need to always enter customers’ homes.
The new process, dubbed ‘Project Zero’, allows engineers to work on ‘live’ pipes in the street with the gas still flowing, which also means that the gas supply to properties located nearby are less likely to be interrupted: good news for customers.
An encapsulation device, made of reinforced plastic, is fitted around pipework, forming a pressurised seal. This allows engineers to replace pipes in the street under live conditions.
The new process has been developed with leading British engineering business Synthotech. The company, headquartered in Harrogate, supplies products and services to utility and infrastructure markets around the world.
Richard Hynes-Cooper, Head of Innovation at Northern Gas Networks, said: “Replacing gas pipes often means we have to enter customers’ homes, to switch off their supply, so we can work safely. This is inconvenient for customers, as it is a significant disruption to their day. Our hope is that the Project Zero technology will mean that our engineers can work efficiently outside in the street, greatly reducing the occasions when they need access to people’s properties.”
Simon Langdale, Engineering Manager for Synthotech, said: “It has been great to collaborate with NGN to produce this pioneering new encapsulation system. It will make altering pipework while keeping a constant supply to the property both easy and efficient. It will also reduce contact and help to protect venerable customers. We look forward to developing it further with NGN and are excited for when this becomes a ‘business as usual’ process.”
To watch a short film about Project Zero, please visit https://vimeo.com/438823714/e80853403f