Fiberglass might be the reply to water loss from leaking pipes

Around 48.6 billion cubic meters of water are lost worldwide every day. According to the International Water Association (IWA), the main contributors to this loss are underground leaks in water mains and utility lines.

To monitor leaks in water mains networks, researchers at the Polytechnic University of Milan have been experimenting with a novel method that uses fiber optics – the inexpensive and widespread technology that gives us fast internet at home.

The scientists developed a Distributed Fiber Optic Sensing (DFOS) cable based on the so-called Stimulated Brillouin Scattering (SBS) technology, which enables the processing and storage of optical information. They worked on high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipes, the common water transport system for civil, agricultural, and industrial uses.

To test the fiber optic cable’s ability to detect deformation caused by pressure anomalies along a pipe (such as water leaks), the team wrapped it and mounted it on the pipe’s outer surface.

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The experiment consisted of two main phases. First, the scientists assessed the sensitivity of the sensor array on an HDPE pipe loaded with static pressure.

“This first phase was successful, so we then focused on detecting the pressure anomaly created by a leak in a pipe circuit with running water,” the researchers explained. “Overall, the results provided positive feedback on the use of DFOS and confirmed the ability to identify and locate even very small water leaks.”

The team plans to further develop their monitoring solution and work towards industrial-scale production of “natively intelligent” HDPE pipes with integrated DFOS cable. Using machine learning algorithms to interpret the cable data could also result in a leak prediction model.

Even if water technology still only gets silver funding, it will play a crucial role in the stewardship of our natural resources – especially in a world hit by the climate crisis.

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