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K-State's National Gas Machinery Laboratory plays key role in defense of nation's natural gas pipelines

By Keener A. Tippin II


Kirby Chapman has something in common with Tom Cruise. And it's not jumping up and down on Oprah's couch.

Kirby ChapmanBoth have been charged with key roles in protecting key national security interests -- Cruise in the movie "Mission: Impossible"; Chapman, pictured at left, in real life by positioning Kansas State University's National Gas Machinery Laboratory to play a key role in a seemingly impossible mission -- the protection of the nation's natural gas pipeline system.

Physically protecting the nation's 278,000 miles of natural gas pipeline is an essentially impossible mission. So Chapman, a K-State professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering and director of the National Gas Machinery Laboratory, and the lab researchers have focused on the second best thing -- working with the Department of Energy and the gas industry to define critical components to ensure the continued availability of gas.

Because of the impossibility of protecting hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines and critical hub stations spread out across a broad geographical distribution, the Department of Energy has developed a national strategy for the physical protection of the pipeline system. That strategy calls for research and development by the oil and gas industries to identify pipeline vulnerabilities and develop robust strategies to reduce those vulnerabilities. According to Chapman, the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center, chartered under the Patriot Act in October 2001, provides new computer modeling and simulation capabilities to focus on interdependencies, vulnerabilities and complexities.

"When an attack does occur on a pipeline, we investigated the best way to re-route the gas supply so that consumers can still be served and whether or not there things we can do to the pipeline to make it more robust; more resilient," Chapman said. "We are still proceeding with the modeling effort; with a goal of making it accessible to key people at gas companies."

But how just viable is an attack on the natural gas pipeline? Is it really at risk?

According to Chapman, pipelines are the favored targets for terrorist attacks outside the United States. Pipelines in Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan and Iraq have previously been attacked. A 1986 attack on a pipeline in Colombia cost $2.5 billion in lost revenue and resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries.

An al-Qaeda-planned attack in Saudi Arabia, had it been successful, would have disrupted an estimated 6 percent of the world's oil supply.

To put that into perspective, Kansas alone transports about 1.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas each year. That is enough energy to heat 5 million homes per season or heat the entire state of Illinois for a year and a half.

Chapman said in the United States, almost every form of productive activity -- including hospitals, security, manufacturing and transportation -- depends on energy. Natural gas feeds an increasingly larger portion of consumed electricity. Disruption in the transmission of this gas would lead to substantial curtailment of electrical power. The bottom line, the economy and national defense would be rendered vulnerable.

Chapman points to the Northeast blackout in summer 2003 as a prime example of what could happen if the nation's 278,000 miles of natural gas pipelines were attacked. The cascading electric transmission disturbance, the first widespread electric blackout to hit the United States since 1965, affected an estimated 50 million people.

"It was something simple that shut everything down; it took days to get things back up again," Chapman said.

Although he had been working on this project for 10 years, Chapman said the events of 9/11 demonstrated the urgency of the project.

"People became aware that something taken for granted is now something that can be easily jeopardized, " Chapman said of the emphasis placed on the project following the terrorist attacks.

Chapman can be reached at 785-532-2319 or chapman@k-state.edu


Summer 2006