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Getting Calibrations in the Can

How NIST keeps track of the 3 billion liters of gas flowing daily through America

Published: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 - 10:23

The volume of oil and oil products moving through America’s pipelines, waterways, roads, and rails borders on the unimaginable.

“Look at it this way,” says John Wright, a project leader in the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Physical Measurement Laboratory’s (PML) Fluid Metrology Group. “Per capita consumption of petroleum in the United States is 10 liters per day. And there are 300 million people. That’s three billion liters moving around each day and usually being metered several times along the way. The infrastructure requirements are mind-boggling.”

PML technician Sherry Sheckels uses a flashlight and magnification loupe to take exact water-level measurements on a stainless steel container.

So is the value. Three billion liters is about 19 million barrels. And with crude oil priced around $100 a barrel these days, approximately $2 billion worth of petroleum travels from multiple sellers to multiple buyers every 24 hours. Clearly, even tiny errors in measurement can amount to a great deal of money.

To ensure maximum accuracy, the U.S. petroleum industry relies on volume measurements traceable to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and specifically to the Fluid Metrology Group in the Physical Measurement Laboratory’s (PML) Sensor Science Division. Customers bring in their own “field test measures”—stainless-steel containers ranging in capacity from four liters to 8,000 liters, made with graduated necks but informally called “cans”—to be calibrated.

Two customers prepare their “cans” for calibration in PML’s Fluid Metrology facility.

The cans are used to calibrate various “prover” mechanisms that measure movement of volume per unit time, and the provers in turn are used to calibrate various kinds of flow meters. Because the provers and meters differ widely in capacity, a variety of can sizes is typically necessary.

For example, Alberta-based calibrators, Glenn Antoniuk and Barbara Germin, recently spent two weeks at NIST calibrating 13 cans ranging from 1 to 500 gallons. That may seem like a long time, but the process is laborious and painstaking. Each can is cleaned and thoroughly dried, carefully leveled, and weighed empty. Then the can is filled with purified water and weighed again. This entire process is repeated five times for cans of 380 liters or less, and at least twice for larger cans.

“We often calibrate over 100 measures a year here, from all sorts of customers, including some designed to be transported by barge out to offshore oil platforms for on-site calibrations,” says Fluid Metrology technician Sherry Sheckels.

Not surprisingly, there are industry standards specified by the American Petroleum Institute that govern each stage of the calibration operation. For example, cans smaller than 20 liters are drained by pouring through the neck while tilted to 70° from horizontal (not 90°, which is completely vertical), and there are standardized drainage and drip times.

Because the mass, density, and temperature of the water are extremely well known, container volume can be determined to high accuracy after correcting for factors such as thermal expansion of the metal. The petroleum industry expects uncertainties less than 0.05 percent for custody transfer or billing applications. NIST’s can-volume calibrations are in the range of 0.01 percent for very large cans.

The other variable of intense interest is how the measurements change or “drift” over time. “If our calibrations or our customers’ calibrations, or the pipe-provers’ change too much, then there’s a lot of retroactive money that changes hands,” Wright says. “It can amount to very large sums because the volume is extraordinarily high.”

Glenn Antoniuk, whose company conducts calibrations from western Canada down to the Gulf Coast, agrees. “I’ve heard of settlements that have been in the millions,” he says.

State laws governing the volumetric accuracy of products delivered to the consumer usually specify 0.5-percent uncertainty, and end-point distribution has to be monitored from time to time. “Five-gallon cans are used at gas stations by state labs to make sure that pumps are calibrated properly,” Wright says.

Because petroleum and other products sold by volume can cross many national borders, it is highly important that international standards agree as closely as possible. This necessitates round-robin comparisons, and Wright is now preparing to test a set of precision containers from Mexico.

John Wright of the Fluid Metrology Group examines apparatus newly arrived from Mexico as part of an international volume-standard comparison.


“In general, the agreement among different national metrology institutes is extremely good,” Wright says. “But that doesn’t mean we can ever stop measuring.”



About The Author

NIST’s picture


Founded in 1901, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a nonregulatory federal agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland, NIST’s mission is to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.