The efficient and effective movement of natural gas from producing regions to consumption regions requires an extensive and elaborate transportation system. In many instances, natural gas produced from a particular well will have to travel a great distance to reach its point of use. The transportation system for natural gas consists of a complex network of pipelines, designed to quickly and efficiently transport natural gas from its origin, to areas of high natural gas demand. Transportation of natural gas is closely linked to its storage: should the natural gas being transported not be immediately required, it can be put into storage facilities for when it is needed.
There are three major types of pipelines along the transportation route: the gathering system, the interstate pipeline system, and the distribution system. The gathering system consists of low pressure, small diameter pipelines that transport raw natural gas from the wellhead to the processing plant. Should natural gas from a particular well have high sulfur and carbon dioxide contents (sour gas), a specialized sour gas gathering pipe must be installed. Sour gas is corrosive, thus its transportation from the wellhead to the sweetening plant must be done carefully.
Pipelines can be characterized as interstate or intrastate. In interstate, they carry natural gas across state boundaries, in some cases clear across the country. Intrastate pipelines, on the other hand, transport natural gas within a particular state.
The interstate natural gas pipeline network transports processed natural gas from processing plants in producing regions to those areas with high natural gas requirements, particularly large, populated urban areas. The pipeline network extends across the entire country. Interstate pipelines are the ‘highways’ of natural gas transmission. Natural gas that is transported through interstate pipelines travels at high pressure in the pipeline, at pressures anywhere from 40 to 100 bar.
Interstate pipelines consist of a number of components that ensure the efficiency and reliability of a system that delivers such an important energy source year-round, twenty four hours a day, and includes a number of different components.
Transmission pipes can measure anywhere from 6 to 48 inches in diameter, depending on their function. Certain component pipe sections can even consist of small diameter pipe, as small as 0.5 inches in diameter. However, this small diameter pipe is usually used only in gathering and distribution systems. Mainline transmission pipes, the principle pipeline in a given system, are usually between 16 and 48 inches in diameter. Lateral pipelines, which deliver natural gas to or from the mainline, are typically between 6 and 16 inches in diameter. Most major interstate pipelines are between 24 and 36 inches in diameter. The actual pipeline itself, commonly called ‘line pipe’, consists of a strong carbon steel material, engineered to meet standards set by the American Petroleum Institute (API). In contrast, some distribution pipe is made of highly advanced plastic, because of the need for flexibility, versatility and the ease of replacement.
Transmission pipelines are produced in steel mills, which are sometimes specialized to produce only pipeline. There are two different production techniques, one for small diameter pipes and one for large diameter pipes. For large diameter pipes, from 20 to 42 inches in diameter, the pipes are produced from sheets of metal which are folded into a tube shape, with the ends welded together to form a pipe section. Small diameter pipe, on the other hand, can be produced seamlessly. This involves heating a metal bar to very high temperatures, then punching a hole through the middle of the bar to produce a hollow tube. In either case, the pipe is tested before being shipped from the steel mill, to ensure that it can meet the pressure and strength standards for transporting natural gas.
Line pipe is also covered with a specialized coating to ensure that it does not corrode once placed in the ground. The purpose of the coating is to protect the pipe from moisture, which causes corrosion and rusting. There are a number of different coating techniques. In the past, pipelines were coated with specialized coal tar enamel. Today, pipes are often protected with what is known as a fusion bond epoxy, which gives the pipe a noticeable light blue color. In addition, cathodic protection is often used; which is a technique of running an electric current through the pipe to ward off corrosion and rusting.
As mentioned, natural gas is highly pressurized as it travels through an interstate pipeline. To ensure that the natural gas flowing through any one pipeline remains pressurized, compression of this natural gas is required periodically along the pipe. This is accomplished by compressor stations, usually placed at 60 to 160 km intervals along the pipeline. The natural gas enters the compressor station, where it is compressed by either a turbine, motor, or engine.
Turbine compressors gain their energy by using up a small proportion of the natural gas that they compress. The turbine itself serves to operate a centrifugal compressor, which contains a type of fan that compresses and pumps the natural gas through the pipeline. Some compressor stations are operated by using an electric motor to turn the same type of centrifugal compressor. This type of compression does not require the use of any of the natural gas from the pipe, however it does require a reliable source of electricity nearby. Reciprocating natural gas engines are also used to power some compressor stations. These engines resemble a very large automobile engine, and are powered by natural gas from the pipeline. The combustion of the natural gas powers pistons on the outside of the engine, which serves to compress the natural gas.
In addition to compressing natural gas, compressor stations also usually contain some type of liquid separator, much like the ones used to dehydrate natural gas during its processing. Usually, these separators consist of scrubbers and filters that capture any liquids or other unwanted particles from the natural gas in the pipeline. Although natural gas in pipelines is considered ‘dry’ gas, it is not uncommon for a certain amount of water and hydrocarbons to condense out of the gas stream while in transit. The liquid separators at compressor stations ensure that the natural gas in the pipeline is as pure as possible, and usually filter the gas prior to compression.
In addition to compressing natural gas to reduce its volume and push it through the pipe, metering stations are placed periodically along interstate natural gas pipelines. These stations allow pipeline companies to monitor the natural gas in their pipes. Essentially, these metering stations measure the flow of gas along the pipeline, and allow pipeline companies to ‘track’ natural gas as it flows along the pipeline. These metering stations employ specialized meters to measure the natural gas as it flows through the pipeline, without impeding its movement.
Interstate pipelines include a great number of valves along their entire length. These valves work like gateways; they are usually open and allow natural gas to flow freely, or they can be used to stop gas flow along a certain section of pipe. There are many reasons why a pipeline may need to restrict gas flow in certain areas. For example, if a section of pipe requires replacement or maintenance, valves on either end of that section of pipe can be closed to allow engineers and work crews safe access. These large valves can be placed every 8 to 32 km along the pipeline, and are subject to regulation by safety codes.
Control Stations and SCADA Systems
Natural gas pipeline companies have customers on both ends of the pipeline – the producers and processors that input gas into the pipeline, and the consumers and local gas utilities that take gas out of the pipeline. In order to manage the natural gas that enters the pipeline, and to ensure that all customers receive timely delivery of their portion of this gas, sophisticated control systems are required to monitor the gas as it travels through all sections of what could be a very lengthy pipeline network. To accomplish this task of monitoring and controlling the natural gas that is traveling through the pipeline, centralized gas control stations collect, assimilate, and manage data received from monitoring and compressor stations all along the pipe.
Most of the data that is received by a control station is provided by Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. These systems are essentially sophisticated communications systems that take measurements and collect data along the pipeline (usually in a metering or compressor stations and valves) and transmit it to the centralized control station. Flow rate through the pipeline, operational status, pressure, and temperature readings may all be used to assess the status of the pipeline at any one time. These systems also work in real time, meaning that there is little lag time between the measurements taken along the pipeline and their transmission to the control station.
The data is relayed to a centralized control station, allowing pipeline engineers to know exactly what is happening along the pipeline at all times. This enables quick reactions to equipment malfunctions, leaks, or any other unusual activity along the pipeline. Some SCADA systems also incorporate the ability to remotely operate certain equipment along the pipeline, including compressor stations, allowing engineers in a centralized control center to immediately and easily adjust flow rates in the pipeline.
Finally to delivered the natural gas at all the desired location, pipeline are installed at the desired location as per the standard & procedure described by the board or authorities.