Scientists have published details of a new method that finds even small leaks from oil and gas pipelines.

They say that the new software-based approach could help prevent serious incidents caused by such leaks — including evacuations of homes and businesses, explosions, and the escape of valuable natural resources into the air, ground and water — not to mention lawsuit payouts costing millions of dollars.

The researchers, Gary Valtinson and Miguel Bagajewicz, have detailed their findings in the American Chemical Society (ACS) journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research.

They noted that using pipelines is generally a highly effective way of moving oil and gas, as well as water, from one place to another. But when these pipes crack or break it can lead to serious, costly problems.

Existing methods for detecting leaks are limited, the researchers explained. Hardware-based approaches using special instrumentation are expensive and complicated, while the currently available software-based systems don't model pressure drops in pipelines correctly. This leads to a lot of errors, particularly for gas pipelines, they said.

Working to fix this flaw, Valtinson and Bagajewicz developed a method that compares pressure and flow rate measurements from a pipeline with mathematical models that can accurately predict what the pressure and flow rate should be.

This technique can detect and identify the size and location of leaks in pipelines. It successfully detected small leaks and reduced errors from 21 percent to 3 percent when compared to existing software, the ACS reported.

The new method could potentially save the oil and gas industry millions of dollars.