Text Size

A More Efficient Pipeline to Cheaper Gas?
NASA-inspired technology may be coming to a gas and oil refinery near you, perhaps helping to ease long-term pain at the pump.

NASA has patented the balanced flow meter -- a technology originally developed for the Space Shuttle Program. The balanced flow meter provides 10 times the accuracy of standard orifice-based fluid flow meters, resulting in significant cost-savings to industries such as gas and oil refinery.

Balanced flow meter Image right: The balanced flow meter is a new approach to regulating how much and how fast fluids move through a channel or pipe. This fluid meter design contains multiple holes and requires less space to function than the older single-hole versions. Image credit: NASA/MSFC

"This technology can pay for itself in two weeks by reducing the amount of power needed to pump fluids through the meters and cutting the power costs to a company," said Anthony Kelley, a lead research engineer in the integrated systems health management and sensors branch of the Engineering Directorate at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

This new approach to meter design improves on the older, standard orifice plates -- meters that regulate how much and how fast fluids move through a channel or pipe -- which are used extensively in refineries, chemical, power and pharmaceutical plants. While the standard plates have just one hole through which fluids flow, the balanced flow meter has multiple holes and requires less straight pipe to function.

"This is another outstanding example of how NASA technology is bringing day-to-day benefits directly to industries on Earth," said Sammy Nabors, commercialization lead in Marshall's Technology Transfer Program Office. "This technology may have a lasting positive impact in the gas and oil refinery industry."

The technology has none of the moving parts that are in other metering systems, making it more reliable, less likely to malfunction and less expensive to manufacture. It’s also much quieter and can be used in different systems without modifying the existing hardware. There are millions of standard orifice plate installations worldwide, and successful commercialization will result in replacement of those with balanced flow meter plates.

Licensed in August 2003, the technology was developed by NASA and A+Flowtek of Kingwood, Texas, a small, minority-owned business. It was originally designed for potential use in space shuttle main engines, where a liquid oxygen flow meter enables better system monitoring. Further development made this invention a promising technology in many commercial applications.

The balanced flow meter technology was conceived, created and tested through the Marshall Center’s Technology Investment Program. The program, managed by the Engineering Programs and Systems Office, fosters the development of emerging in-house technologies.