Smart Pigs

25th August 2006

Over the last several weeks there have been a spate of articles on the Alaska Pipeline. The pipeline was corroded and and needed to be cleaned. The tool used to inspect the pipeline is called  a Smart Pig.

BP has expressed surprise at the amount of corrosion discovered on the Prudhoe Bay network.

The firm says it went nine years without using a robotic device called a “pig” to clean out its lines because company officials did not think the procedure was necessary.

Pigs are used frequently in Canada, and advertisements for such procedures, performed by service companies, appear often in trade publications.

And again here

Coffman’s reports show, among many things, that BP didn’t run a standard industry test using a robot called a “smart pig,” and that the company didn’t place “coupons” in proper locations. Coupons are pieces of metal inserted into the pipeline flow, and then inspected to determine if corrosion has occurred.

BP said it scheduled a smart pig test for the western line of Prudhoe Bay for the summer of 2006 after ultrasonic testing last fall pointed to the highest rate of corrosion in six years. But the line, which remains open, suffered the March oil spill before the test could be conducted.

BP executives say the corrosion on the pipelines was surprising, because those lines carried oil processed to remove the impurities that cause corrosion. “With that situation, we did not expect the severe corrosion we found,” said Steve Marshall, president of BP Exploration, at a legislative hearing in Anchorage last week.

I don’t know what genius called these things Smart Pigs. But the name is catchy. It conjures the same Ghost of Christmas Present that called Mr Scrooge’s servant Bob Cratchit and blessed him with a four bedroom house on 15 shillings a week.


Sounds frugal. Scrooge and Cratchit are frugal. Oil and oil pipelines are expensive. They can only get away with high construction and maintenance bills because of the high cost of oil.

How would you build a 1000 mile water pipeline that would go uphill inland from the ocean in such a way as to minimize the cost of construction and maintenance over 50-100 years, say, and thereby minimize the cost of the water.

Beats me.

But there are just a plethora of tools out there on the shop floor that could address this question and over time “evolve” — or model — some interesting solutions.

We have discussed modeling for a semi permiable membrane such that in the end you could just stick a pipe in the ocean and have only fresh water flow into the pipe. Another model might be for a machine that could suck any kind of dirt or rock into one end and extrude strong durable pipe out the other. Another model would be a search for the cheapest combination of passive and active pumping to make water flow inland uphill for 1000 miles. Another model would be for the cheapest/most long lasting way to coat the inner pipe so as to avoid corrosion, algae build up or sedimentation. Another model would be for the cheapest way to monitor and fix a break in the pipeline caused by, say, earthquakes, pipebombs or corrosion. Another model would be for the cheapest way to monitor water quality as it moves up the line. Hey this is fun.

And now two smaller Cratchits, boy and girl, came tearing in, screaming that outside the baker’s they had smelt the goose, and known it for their own; and basking in luxurious thoughts of sage and onion, these young Cratchits danced about the table, and exalted Master Peter Cratchit to the skies, while he (not proud, although his collars nearly choked him) blew the fire, until the slow potatoes bubbling up, knocked loudly at the saucepan-lid to be let out and peeled.

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