In which areas are we going to see major innovations?
Already during 2018, we started different technology innovation projects that are also included in the National Plan Industry 4.0 of the Ministry of Economic Development. Firstly, we completed a pilot project on 50 gas distribution subnetworks. More specifically, we installed on the networks some devices that allow us to acquire physical and analogic parameters, useful for analysis and predictions; such devices also make it possible to have direct feedback on the status of the parameters monitored. In the coming two years, the networks digitization will involve 6,500 subnetworks; that will allow for an increase by a factor of ten in the measurement flow throughout the infrastructure. In this way, we can significantly reduce outages due to network failures or malfunctions.
Which other progresses do you expect in terms of efficiency in distribution?
As a result of the installation of several thousand new pression telemonitoring points at the end or in relevant points of the network, we will be able to improve the control of the functionality of our system. In this regard, we are working on an experimental project on some Italgas low-pressure networks, in order to develop and refine a methodology of collection and treatment of data that leads to the identification of an efficiency parameter of the distribution infrastructure. This means to be able to manage the network keeping the optimal pressure level, neither high nor low, while guaranteeing service quality notwithstanding fluctuations in gas consumptions. A stable pression on optimal levels also offers benefits in terms of lower emissions and dispersions of natural gas in the atmosphere, with a positive impact on the environment.
Are you addressing the issue of dispersions by any other means?
Yes, we are. We have introduced a laser technology with the Cavity Ring-Down Spectroscopy system, also known as CRDS. Such system allows for a more evolved dispersion detection compared to the one traditionally used in the distribution business until now. After the conclusion of the trial phase of the new cavity ring-down spectroscopy methodology in 2018, we introduced the system in our business practice. Today we can identify any dispersion in road pipelines, user branches or riser columns, with greater selectivity for other types of gas and with a faster vehicular inspection and dispersion deletion. CRDS System presents a sensitivity that is 1,000 times higher than that of any other laser systems used so far: we are talking about the ability to detect gas particles in terms of parts per billion, i.e. ppb, instead of parts per million, i.e. ppm. Furthermore, the huge amount of data collected is processed via cloud by a sophisticated software that can detect dispersions even at 150 – 200 meters from the detector and until the second or third floor of the houses - depending on wind conditions - compared to the 2 to 3 meters distance, as it has been to date. All in all, the ability to detect leaks today is 4 to 5 times higher than with traditional systems.
What are the other projects you are focusing on in order to improve the safety of your distribution activities?
We concluded a research within the European Gas Research Group, on the interaction between odoriferous compounds in biomethane and traditional odorants, namely tetrahydrothiophene - or THT - and tert-butyl mercaptan - or TBM. It is essential to keep the effectiveness of gas odorization also in biogas, as a crucial factor to guarantee safety in the distribution business: should any accidental dispersion occur, these odorants allow us to identify the presence of natural gas, which - being odorless and colorless - is otherwise very hard to detect. In particular, this study focused on the behavior of some interferents (Limonene, Pinene, Butanone and DMS), in the presence of THT and TBM odorants.
Do the new frontiers of technology provide any help in the security of the system?
Of course they do. Just think about the new RFID markers, which today can be used to share information on the localization of underground pipes. Those new devices are electronic tags consisting of an integrated circuit and an antenna. They allow not only for reading the info registered during the pipe lay-down, but also for getting new information without digging, thanks to the radio-frequency short-range data transmission. The RFID marker is positioned close to the underground pipes, so that it can be located using a transceiver controlled by an operator on the road. The marker can provide structured information on type of material, installation depth and position of underground pipes, with no need to be powered by electricity sources, as data exchange with the transceiver occurs by electromagnetic induction.