Scientists are engaged in the development of a ‘living’ sensor that leverages the metabolic process of bacteria to detect gas leaks in real-time.

The development is part of the researchers’ efforts to prevent environmental disasters and fuel-distribution disruptions caused by pipeline leaks.

Last autumn, the Colonial Pipeline, which carries fuel from Texas to New York, developed cracks and it led to spillage of a quarter-million gallons of gas in rural Alabama.

Vapours from leaked petrol were so strong that pipeline repair could not be conducted for days.

The scientists noted that the proposed technology will inform pipeline managers about leaks as soon as failure begins.

Project leader Veera Gnaneswar Gude said: “The advantage with our sensor is that it can detect very small leaks, and operators can take quick action to repair them.

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“We no longer have to wait until the leak is out of hand. Plus if we are able to develop this system on a larger scale, the same unit would be able to treat the waste and to remediate the soil and water that has been contaminated.”

“The advantage with our sensor is that it can detect very small leaks, and operators can take quick action to repair them.”

Operators currently use by a device called smart pig to inspect pipelines.

The device is an electronic sensor that travels through the pipe, detecting cracks or welding defects.

However, regular inspection has not completely prevented the occurrence of leaks.

The sensor is being developed by Gude and expected to provide additional information about the integrity of the pipes and adhere to the outside of the pipe.

As part of the development, the researchers are testing bacteria that will elicit an adequately measurable cathode voltage, while also having the ability to survive in a marine environment to be able to help with the detection of offshore oil spill.

One type of bacteria being tested releases electrons to its environment through metabolic processes after consuming carbon-based material (gas or oil).

Following the identification and immobilisation of rugged bacteria, they can be used as leak detectors in various oil transport and drilling applications, including fracking.