Energy Dept. looks to save what critical infrastructure parts that it can

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Some old pieces of the nation’s critical infrastructure are too difficult or expensive to replace, but they can be preserved and improved. That’s the tact the Energy Department is taking in a program called Rapid Encapsulation of Pipelines Avoiding Intensive Replacement, or REPAIR program. It’s out of the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. ARPA-E’s REPAIR Program Director Jack Lewnard joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin for the details.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Lewnard, good to have you on.

Jack Lewnard: Thanks, Tom. Glad to be here.

Tom Temin: Well, tell us about – first of all, what the process that you’re looking to establish here, rapid encapsulation of pipelines. What is that?

Jack Lewnard: Yeah, it’s a good question. The nation’s natural gas distribution infrastructure is about 2 million miles of pipes. And some of these pipes are quite old, some of them over 100 years old. Replacing those pipes is a challenge. The main cost is actually the cost of disruption and excavation. So our goal is to offer an alternative. Instead of excavating the old pipes, we want to go in and essentially rehabilitate those pipes in place using robotic tools. And that way we can avoid the entire cost of excavation. And the disruptions associated with that.

Tom Temin: And when you mentioned 2 million miles of pipe then, that sounds like it’s not just the transport interstate of natural gas, but also each line to every dwelling and every down city streets also?

Jack Lewnard: That’s correct. And repair is really directed at those ladder lines, the so-called distribution system. This is the low pressure system that connects to 75 million meters, residential customers, commercial accounts. And that’s where we find these legacy pipes. We’re particularly concerned with the older cast iron pipes. Those were installed between about 1850 and about 1930. And then after that, when they started putting in, what at that time were modern steel pipes, those steel pipes at that time were not cathodically protected. In other words, they weren’t protected against corrosion. And those pipes were installed between about 1930 and maybe about 1970. So I want to emphasize this is a small fraction of the nation’s total distribution system, maybe only about 3% of the pipes. But they account for a majority of the leaks and PHMSA, and the state regulators have long sought to replace those pipes. And the utilities are actively working to do it but we need a lower cost method, because a $1 million to $10 million a mile – it’s really just too expensive to replace them all at once.

Tom Temin: Sure. And when something does go wrong, that’s the occasional house blowing right off the foundation, right?

Jack Lewnard: Well, that’s the most dramatic situation. But generally, what you have are a lot of chronic leaks and those chronic leaks, in aggregate have a negative impact on both the environment and there’s a certain cost associated with that. And so what you really have is a kind of a low-level ongoing maintenance problem. And it would be a lot better if there were a cheaper, more cost-effective and faster way to repair those pipes than to excavate. That’s so disruptive, it’s so expensive it ultimately becomes quite a burden for the utility customers to bear those costs.

Tom Temin: And give us a little detail on how you envision this working because the pipes are in dirt. And so somehow the robots have to get the dirt away and put something around the pipe like fiberglass or what, epoxy or something?

Jack Lewnard: Yeah, so the trick here is to avoid doing as much excavation as possible. So it’s very well known in the gas utility industry to do a minor excavation to access a pipe, and then you can do what’s called hot tapping or cut a hole into the pipe. And from there, you can insert a robotic tool and this is commonly done with inspection tools, and they will literally crawl around inside the pipe with cameras and other instruments and gather information from inside the network. What we’d like to do is extend that and now put in robotic tools that can essentially put a coating on the inside of the pipe. And that coating is intended to be a structural coating, and provide sufficient mechanical support that the pipe can now be rehabilitated with a life extension of up to 50 years.

Tom Temin: Got it. We’re speaking with Dr. Jack Lewnard. He’s program director of the repair program at the Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Energy Department (ARPA-E). And the $33 million, it’s coming through ARPA-E and not through some regular Energy Department-type of program. So it sounds experimental. And so are you trying this with certain locations to see if it can be proven out? And how will the locations be decided?

Jack Lewnard: Oh, so we are actually starting a little bit more basic level. We’re going to start essentially in the lab. We’ve awarded 10 teams and they have a diverse set of approaches. We have two teams that are looking at straight up polymer coatings. We have two teams that are looking at polymer fiber composite coating, similar to what you see in a Boeing 777 jet – very strong because of the added fibers in there. And then we have two teams that are looking at cold spray metal. This is metal that would be essentially fine powders that are impacted onto the surface and adhered. And one team that’s actually looking at sintered metal for the inside of the pipes. And so what they’re going to do is spend the first roughly year or so demonstrating proof of concept that they can actually make their techniques work in this highly constrained geometry inside of a pipe. They’ve got to get in there, they’ve got to show that they can, you know, create this deposition on the inside walls, and then cure or otherwise perfect that, that coding, and then in the second and third year, there’ll be further developed that with the idea that we’ll then finally have a demonstration in a test piece of pipe. I have to emphasize this is a very novel approach. The coatings that we’re looking at don’t exist, the robotic tools don’t exist. So there’s a lot of new stuff here. But that’s classic ARPA-E, you know: High impact but high risk.

Tom Temin: And these teams are academic or are they industrial? Or who are some of the recipients?

Jack Lewnard: Yeah, we actually got a very broad response. We have national labs participating. We have five universities who are primes but even those universities are generally working with private companies and national labs. And then we we have three small companies who have also, are getting awards.

Tom Temin: And just a detail question: These pipes are what a couple of inches across in diameter?

Jack Lewnard: Well, the distribution system ranges in size from some of the older pipes that were put in back in the 1800s. Some of those pipes can be 48 inches, basically four feet in diameter, some even a few larger than that. The majority of the pipes are in the 12-inch to 2-inch diameter. And for repair for this early stage we’re targeting pipes that are 10 inches and above, just to allow some flexibility for the technology developers to have some space. I would be ideal to ultimately have robotic tools that could go down into 4-inch-and-below-size pipes. But just to keep the problem tractable at this point, we’re targeting 10-inch and above pipes.

Tom Temin: Right so this won’t be able to transfer to, say, heart surgery anytime soon. But my other question was not the you mentioned the pipes are often corroded or, you know, in some ways deteriorated. Will the grantees be using pieces of deteriorated pipe? Because you have to know that it’ll transfer from say brand new steel to steel that’s been in there for 40, 50 years.

Jack Lewnard: You and there’s actually two types of pipes I want to emphasize. The first type is cast iron. So, you know, cast iron pots, I think people have a vision of kind of a very rough surface. These were the pipes, state of the art of the 1860s to about 1930. And cast iron is still used in water pipes, but not in gas pipes anymore. So that’s one type of pipe that we have to be concerned with. The cast iron pipes generally are fairly thick, but they do have a very rough surface. And then the other is the so-called bare steel pipes, which are older steel pipes, you know, produced by techniques that aren’t used today. Those will generally be fairly clean and smooth on the inside. The corrosion is really on the outside of those pipes. But in both cases, we’re looking for techniques that can work with with each one of these materials. And they do have different surface properties.

Tom Temin: Got it. I guess corrosion on the outside, you can pretty much bet will eventually make its way inside.

Jack Lewnard: That’s correct. And that is one of the challenges. And then of course, that leads to leaks. So one of the things we want to do is make sure that the coatings that we impart on the inside of the pipe are fully mechanically able to carry the loads of that pipe. Because we assume that over the next 50 years, that outer pipe skin, if you will, will continue to deteriorate. So one of the goals of repair is that the pipe coating that we put in, be able to act as essentially a brand new pipe inside of the old pipe. And we assume that that old pipe just deteriorates away and is no longer providing any kind of mechanical integrity to the pipe system.

Tom Temin: Almost like a snake shedding its skin?

Jack Lewnard: That’s exactly right.

Tom Temin: Dr. Jack Lewnard is program director of the Repair Program at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, ARPA-E. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jack Lewnard: I very much appreciate your interest in the program.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.