Company factfile

  • Invented by: Professor Barry Barry Lennox, School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering
  • Application: Gas industry
  • Licensed to: Pipeline Engineering in 2008
  • IP: Patents, know-how
  • Funding: £48K UMIP Proof-of-Principle Funding (PoP), £500K from sources including BP, The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), BP (via the Oil Industry Technology Facilitator, ITF), Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP), Pipeline Engineering and EPSRC ‘Collaboration Fund’.
  • Awards: The IET Innovation Awards 2010 – Measurement in Action category. Shortlisted and commended for ICHEMe Awards – Innovative Product of the Year category

“Through UMIP, BP became aware of our work”

Professor Barry Lennox

About Acoustek

Acoustek uses acoustic technology to detect blockages as well as leaks in gas pipelines. The technology is set to revolutionise the market as it can quickly and accurately locate features at distances of up to 10km. Pipeline Engineering has a long history of providing pipeline pigging and pipeline management solutions for the flow assurance industry and Acoustek is a revolutionary new system which keeps it at the forefront of the market sectors in which it operates. BP’s support of, and investment in, the development project has already enabled the development team to trial Acoustek on a live gas installation with early results being excellent and giving further confidence to the technology.

Gordon Short, Director of Technical Development at Pipeline Engineering said “Radiographic detection and diver interventions can cost multiples of £100,000s. Add to this the loss of production and the cost, and environmental implications should the use of chemicals be involved, then the benefits of early detection using Acoustek become obvious.”

We met up with the inventor, Professor Barry Lennox, to find out more about his experiences of the licensing process…

Was the application of the discovery/invention apparent from the outset? If not, how was this developed?

When we began the project we focused on detecting leaks in water distribution pipelines and acoustics was one of many techniques we investigated. Through UMIP, BP became aware of our work and from their input the emphasis for the project shifted to detecting blockages in long lengths of natural gas pipelines. Without BP’s input we would have probably continued to focus on detecting leaks in water pipelines.

How important was the funding?

We received PoP funding at a crucial stage in the project. Our research had reached the point where we had demonstrated our technology in a pipeline that was about 10m long. With the PoP funding we were able to demonstrate the technology on a 500m pipeline, which was essential if the technology was to be taken seriously by industry. Following this demonstration, BP recognised the industrial relevance of the work and began investing in the technology.

UMIP took the lead in securing the funding from BP and also handled all the contract negotiations, which were far from straightforward.

How do you feel you have benefited from licensing this technology out?

By licensing the technology to industry we have been able to work much more closely with industry than we would normally do. This has allowed us to identify limitations in
our technology, which has helped shape our current research and also given us a better understanding of the practicalities of applying new technology in the oil and gas industry.

Has this process improved your links to industry?

The technology has received considerable interest from industry and the work has given us credibility in the oil and gas industry. There are very few academic projects that make it through to commercialisation in this industry and having done this, companies are much more interested in working with us as they are confident that we are able to deliver. We have recently been to visit National Grid to discuss possible research projects with them. Having a track record in developing a commercial project made a significant difference in our discussions.

What did you especially value from the University during this process?

UMIP have brought great value to the work by allowing first Frank Allison and then Ian Proctor to spend a significant amount of time supporting the project. They have provided invaluable advice during the project, set-up meetings with industry and secured funding for the work.

What were your aspirations for getting involved in the commercialisation process?

I did it because I thought it would be interesting. In one high profile application of Acoustek, BP was making multi-million pound decisions based purely on the information that we provided them with. Thankfully we got it right and when they later extracted a section of subsea pipeline, the obstruction was precisely where we said it would be.

Was there anything which ‘surprised’ you during the process?

BP were quite slow at first and seemed happy to just watch and see what happened with our research. This changed when they had a significant problem in a pipeline in the North Sea. Within a few days of this problem occurring we were transported offshore and the technology deployed for the first time. Full commercialisation of the technology happened almost immediately after this.

Do you have any advice for colleagues thinking of licensing?

I’ve been involved in the formation of a spin-out company in the past and can conclude that licensing is far less stressful! We are currently looking at other application areas for Acoustek and we are already looking at other licensing arrangements for the technology.

What does the future hold for Acoustek?

The work is really starting to take off now. We are currently developing an acoustic tool with Phoenix Inspection Systems for monitoring heat exchanger tubes and exploring possible applications of the technology in the distribution of natural gas to residential houses.

“In one high profile application of Acoustek, BP was making multi-million pound decisions based purely on the information that we provided them with. Thankfully we got it right!”

Professor Barry Lennox