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TUNABLE Diode Laser (TDL) technol­ogy originally developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), for atmo­spheric measurements on Mars and Earth is now being used by the Natural Gas Industry for gas quality measurements in the field. Requirements for reliable operation in harsh environments with low power consumption and no mainte­nance exist for air and space flight. Now, natural gas producers and transmission companies are using this technology for moisture, and CO2 analysis to ensure that pipeline quality standards are met with accurate results over many years.


Historically producers and transmis­sion companies have relied on direct contact, lead acetate tape based ana­lyzers or UV absorbance analyzers for H2S measurement and electrochemical or oscillating crystal sensors for mois­ture measurement. These older analytical technologies have proven to be slow and unreliable with drift tendencies or false readings that can result in false shut-ins and/or off spec gas entering mainline gas transmission systems. Recent de­velopment work at SpectraSensors has enabled TDL analyzers for use in H2S applications with the low maintenance, reliability and rapid response that pro­ducers have been looking for.


“If we were to shut-in a producer due to a false moisture reading, millions of cubic feet of gas could be delayed and possibly incur unnecessary dehydra­tion costs,” says Melvin Yancey, a Field Measurement Technician at the El Paso Natural Gas Company’s (EPNG) San Juan District in the Four Corners Area. “On the other hand, if the gas does not meet EPNG’s criteria for quality, as required in our tariff, we would not take the gas and the gas may have to be vented.”


To avoid those possibilities and meet quality standards of pipeline gas, EPNG has installed a new laser-based sensor technology at the location where each of its 16 major producers in the San Juan area joins the pipeline.


Tunable diode laser (TDL)-based tech­nology is highly effective in detection of contaminants in natural gas. Manufac­tured by SpectraSensors, Inc., a leading developer and producer of optical-based natural gas analyzers, the highly reliable “bread box-size” gas analyzer provides non-contact measurement of moisture, H2S, carbon dioxide, and other contami­nants in natural gas pipelines.


Tunable laser-based natural gas an­alyzers are fast, accurate and flexible. They are also cost effective. While ini­tial purchase price is somewhat higher than traditional surface-based natural gas sensors, even the most conservative evaluation of this advanced technology indicates that maintenance saving alone will provide a return on investment in a relatively short period of time.


El Paso feels that pipeline opera­tors and producers alike are in need of ongoing and accurate gas analysis. “If there were faulty or bad readings,” says Yancey, “then the customer is going to dispute why I shut them in. Let’s say a producer is piping hundreds of millions of cubic feet of gas….if I shut in that producer, the cost could be immense.”

Each producer can monitor El Paso’s gas analyzer readings by capturing the electronic signal from El Paso’s unit via a SCADA system and viewing the readings in the producer’s control room.


Considering the downside risk of moisture and H2S in the gas, and that SpectraSensors analyzers are monitoring the quality of gas worth tens of millions of dollars per day within this area of EPNG’s transmission alone, it is reason­able to conclude that this laser-based sensor system could pay for itself in a brief period of time.


For example, transmission pipeline op­erators have traditionally relied on elec­trochemical sensors as gas analyzers to monitor moisture. These sensors incor­porate a coated surface, and a higher electrical capacitance across the surface indicates higher water content. However, these capacitance sensors are susceptible to contamination by glycols or amines in the gas, which can cause exaggerated readings or a failure to detect.


An erroneously high reading could force the operator to temporarily shut down the pipeline, costing the company tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. The gas producer may choose to over-process the gas to ensure it is within the tariffs imposed by the pipeline operator. Because the laser-based gas analyzer responds quickly and provides a reliable measurement that will not drift, it can be used in a closed loop to control the blending of dry and wet gas, allowing the producer of pipeline to optimized costs by staying just within the tariff.


Since the laser system never comes into contact with the contaminants present in natural gas -- as do elec­trochemical and crystal gas sensors -- the laser-based gas analyzer practically eliminates maintenance and operational costs. Studies show the cost of operat­ing and maintaining “conventional” sen­sors carry a cumulative annual expense often exceeding $30,000 per unit, includ­ing labor, recalibration and rebuilding, back-up sensor heads as well as unnec­essary gas dehydration and tariffs -- all of which are obviated by laser-based natural gas analyzers.