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GE Modifies X-ray Unit For Crushing Depths

March 6, 2014
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GE is hoping that a re-engineered medical X-ray detector will be able to inspect underwater pipelines for cracks and corrosion—despite daunting conditions that, at the 10,000-foot depths where many pipelines are found, can include 300 atmospheres of pressure.

That’s more than 4,400 pounds per square inch. A normal X-ray detector, with its fragile glass and delicate electronics, could never survive. “These are medical detectors,” said GE Healthcare mechanical engineer Karen Southwick. “They go in a hospital.”

The bottom of the ocean is a much tougher environment than a hospital, contrary to what some medical students may think. According to Dan Scoville, the water pressure at such great depths presents a very basic danger:

Anything with air in it would be squished.

Scoville was quoted in a GE news release. He is a project manager and electrical engineer for the oil-field services company Oceaneering International, which is partnering with GE Healthcare, GE Oil & Gas, and BP on the underwater imaging project.

He is also an experienced diver who as a hobby searches for shipwrecks in Lake Ontario, using an underwater remote operated vehicle that he developed with a team of students from the Rochester Institute of Technology, his alma mater.

The engineers put the medical X-ray detector inside a rugged case designed to protect it even at extreme underwater depths. It fits inside a larger machine that’s attached to a deep-sea submersible rig. The machine latches onto a pipeline and slides down its length, taking X-ray snapshots as it goes.

The device hasn’t yet gotten a chance to prove itself at sea, but it has performed well in lab tests.

“Whether it’s a small spill or a catastrophic one, this is hopefully preventing that,” Southwick said. “Ideally, we will be able to have data for every pipeline that’s in the water.”

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