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IoT plus satellite delivers ubiquitous safety for hazardous gases in transit

Author : Gavan Murphy, Globalstar

23 February 2024

It's clear that when petrochemical companies ship explosive products in rail tank cars and tank containers, it's essential that they always know the location of these assets, especially so if they travel long distances on their way to distribution partners and customers.

Image: Globalstar
Image: Globalstar

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INEOS Oxide is one such provider, and a major global producer. Two of its main products are Ethylene Oxide and Propylene Oxide, primarily used to manufacture products for a range of industries and applications: agrochemicals, construction, pharmaceuticals and personal care, solvents and inks, surfactants and detergents. Both of these chemicals are highly explosive, flammable and carcinogenic to humans and animals.

INEOS Oxide was well aware of the requirement to deploy a tracking system that would enable the company to monitor its tank containers and rail tank cars as they traverse the continent carrying their volatile products.

Fortunately, today's advanced tracking technology solutions that harness the Internet of Things, with the latest IoT hardware and software, as well as space-based technology, ensure that potentially explosive materials can be monitored reliably even when the cargo travels beyond the reach of conventional telecom networks.

The company soon discovered that such a system also yields myriad operational benefits. Upon initially deploying a powerful satellite IoT asset tracking platform to its tanks a few years ago, INEOS Oxide soon discovered a plethora of advantages additional to delivering the essential imperative of safety.

The company began its initial use of the system by carrying out track and trace on its tank shipments of Ethylene Oxide. In addition to continually monitoring each tank’s location as it travels by road, the solution reduces the risk in transportation by monitoring the condition of the chemicals in each vessel. Further still, it provides valuable shipment information, thanks to the Internet of Things, that benefits the whole supply chain.

Such was the success of this initial deployment that INEOS expanded it and soon the system was being used to monitor all rail tank cars as well as tank containers dedicated to the transport of its hazardous products, totalling over 700 device units to date.

The solution collates data from multiple sensors and GPS in transmitting devices installed on each tank car and container, and sends it securely by satellite to customer operations teams at regular, user-defined intervals.

Image: Globalstar
Image: Globalstar

“Our powerful tracking platform helps our business in so many ways, the most important, of course being safe conveyance of our products,” says Business Safety, Health & Environmental (SHE) Manager at INEOS Oxide, Patrick De Block.

The system leverages IoT tracking to do much more than simply provide positioning data. “We always want to know where the rail tank cars are, but the really important parameter we must know for safe transport is temperature.” Part of the platform that the company deployed is a solution that monitors surface temperature of the tank’s or rail car’s contents. The temperature is monitored every two hours for continual, rigorous monitoring. The solution has both an online version and local version, this duality deemed essential backup to validate the vessel's thermometer readings.

In light of the highly dangerous nature of the gases being transported, INEOS Oxide was very mindful of the need for any solution is chose to be certified to the very highest ATEX safety level for explosive materials.

Ensuring data transmissions are uninterrupted thanks to satellites

The complexity of moving assets and cargo over long distances is exponentially increased when what’s being transported is highly explosive gases. Each vessel needs to always be in contact with central operations in order to ensure that all stakeholders know its precise location. The solutions data-emitting sensors are the key enabler.

To ensure these vital data streams are always true, robust and complete, transmissions from the IoT tracking devices need to be far-reaching and uninterrupted. This presents huge challenges when considering a container making its way across the globe. Many of us will have personally experienced the frustration of data transmission interruption: for example, if you’re watching Netflix and your Wi-Fi falters.

If you’re transmitting data to monitor vessels containing highly unstable and dangerous gases, the consequences are rather more serious than a minor nuisance.

A variety of technologies and solutions exist in the market today which promise always-on low-power tracking capability for assets and cargo. These are based on a range of distribution technologies including GSM and proprietary radio and local or wide area network (LAN/WAN) based product offerings.

Image: Thales Alenia Space
Image: Thales Alenia Space

However only by employing satellite communications can users be sure that the connectivity with their shipments and the assets which convey them will be uninterrupted, whatever the weather or environment, and even when the items travel beyond regions of reliable GSM reach.

Only satellite communication at the heart of a tracking solution makes it possible to know the location and status of each tank and rail car accurately and continuously in real time as they traverse the continent, even when beyond the reach of GSM mobile networks. This regular, reliable dataflow empowers INEOS and its supply chain partners to make speedy, well-informed business decisions about each delivery and be alerted to any changes in environmental conditions that might affect the shipment.

“There are other solutions out there, but we know that our solution with ATEX-certification, together with reach and constancy enabled by satellite technology, is ideal,” Block added.

Geo-fencing for granular real-time supply chain data

In addition to reliably monitoring the location of its shipments, the flexible solution features numerous additional operations-enhancing functionalities. The company uses it to set up geofences around customer locations. Tracking data enables INEOS Oxide to reliably provide granular detail on car or tank temperature alongside delivery logistics as the shipment nears its destination.

“We’re now able to harvest so much data, we can make informed predictions regarding temperature fluctuation, and any necessary requirement for refrigeration, as our shipments move across countries,” De Block notes.

Europe’s main transport corridors are risk-assessed, and that data is fed into the platform. If for any reason a diversion occurs, INEOS Oxide‘s operational teams are alerted and have the ability to take any necessary mitigating action. If delays occur due to traffic congestion, for instance, reliable data keeps local authorities informed that the tanks are safe.

This system continually emanates IoT-enabled data, highly useful for analysing trends and ensuring that each tank is technically performing as it should. De Block adds that transport authorities appreciate that providers like INEOS Oxide have made the investment in achieving this level of technical understanding.

Image: Globalstar
Image: Globalstar

Keeping stakeholders informed

In the event of an emergency, stakeholders and public authorities can be provided with a detailed understanding of the tank’s or rail car’s location and conditions.

Critically, satellite technology enables all stakeholders to be confident that IoT transmissions from the tanks and cars are reliable, ubiquitous and uninterrupted. This delivers the very highest level of safety compliance, benefitting and protecting all supply chain partners as well as infrastructure authorities, and the organisations and people who rely on railways and roads.

INEOS Oxide has gained many learnings from trials of other solutions and technologies, including, for instance, the importance of battery management.

Such a system must be able to monitor hazardous materials in unpowered environments such as rail cars and tanks. So long battery life is crucial. The extra-long charge lifespan yields its own benefits: “If we had to carry out maintenance on the devices or change the battery every year or half year, it would incur significant operational cost and make the solution uneconomic,” De Block explains.

“The system we chose is intrinsically energy efficient, and with the latest batteries lasting years, the resultant low maintenance cost sets it apart,” he comments.

The system also has the capability to accurately measure the amount of gas in a tank or rail car to help optimise these assets’ use. Explains De Block; “At this point, when a tank returns from the customer, we assume that it has been unloaded; but really we would like a more precise verification of this.” De Block explains that an empty rail tank car heats up more rapidly than a full one. If a temperature rise is identified, there might be an assumption that the vessel is part filled and at risk, triggering alerts. But in reality, it might be empty and pose no danger.

Multiple operational benefits

Gavan Murphy, Globalstar
Gavan Murphy, Globalstar

While it’s vital that the transport of explosive chemicals is completely safe, De Block points out that the system also affords many operational benefits.

This IoT-empowered solution provides instant updates about whether a rail tank car has been loaded or unloaded or ready to be redeployed. This helps the company enhance return on investment and optimisation of assets.

In many cases, customers’ licences allow them to store the gases at a maximum of 25 degrees Celsius. Knowing the precise temperature of the products at all times enables the parties to optimise logistical arrangements. This not only ensures the safe transit and delivery of the products, it also ensures that delivery timetables meet the needs of both supplier and customer, commercially as well as for assurance of regulatory compliance. “Our deployment has proven extremely useful to parties across the supply chain,” comments De Block.

Any data stream is only as good as its weakest link. For any operator transporting hazardous materials across borders and long distances, only by employing satellite technology can they be sure that they are minimising risk.

Tracking ubiquity and dependability are fundamental, De Block stresses: “If the solution you're using is not completely reliable, you're lost.”

When the tracking and monitoring solution is imbued with smart IoT technology alongside satellites’ reach, transporting explosive cargo over long distances is safer, but additional operational benefits abound.

“The matter of pure safety is of course paramount; we always need to know where our assets are, and we need to know the contents‘ temperature, but the system is really helping us achieve optimisation of our processes,” De Block comments.

About the author:

Gavan Murphy is Director of Marketing EMEA and APAC at Globalstar. Based in Globalstar’s European HQ in Dublin, Gavan is responsible for the development and implementation of Globalstar’s marketing strategy across the EMEA and APAC regions. He spearheads the marketing of Globalstar’s consumer products including the SPOT satellite-enabled safety and tracking solutions portfolio, as well as B2B marketing of data solutions for a range of vertical sectors. Prior to joining Globalstar in 2008, Gavan worked with Vodafone as Channel Development and Category Manager.

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