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Sunday 23 April 2017

Professor Ernest Shannon

Irishman who revolutionised gas pipeline safety and inspired a recurring theme of Bond films

Professor Ernest Shannon, who died on September 2 aged 73, was an engineer who developed a revolutionary breed of pipeline 'pig' -- sensors that detect cracks and scrapes in gas networks before such problems lead to catastrophic ruptures.

His work was prompted in the 1970s by a series of devastating explosions, particularly in America, where fractures more than 10 miles long had ripped along pipes at speeds of up to 2,000 metres per second.

At that time there were no regulatory standards for oil and gas pipeline inspections around the world. According to Shannon, many big American companies with vast pipeline networks simply preferred to pay compensation when potentially fatal fractures occurred rather than incur the expense of monitoring tens of thousands of miles of infrastructure.

But British Gas, where Shannon was director of on-line inspection, was much smaller and could not afford to take such a blasé attitude. So, at the helm of a 350-strong team of researchers, he began to develop in the early 1980s a sophisticated range of "pipeline investigation gauges" -- known as 'pigs' -- that could be inserted into Britain's 10,000 miles of pipeline and collect data for engineers to scrutinise and detect potential weak spots.

For makers of the James Bond films, meanwhile, pipeline pigs emerged as useful and suitably technological plot devices. Pigs appeared three times in the spy thrillers, notably in The Living Daylights when one is used to transport a defector, Koskov, underneath the Iron Curtain from Czechoslovakia to Austria. In Diamonds are Forever, Bond disables a pipeline pig to make his getaway, while in The World is not Enough the villain transports a nuclear weapon in a pig to Azerbaijan.

Robert William Ernest Shannon was born on October 10, 1937, in Belfast. He knew his father as a civil servant with Customs and Excise; it was only in his thirties that Ernie Shannon discovered a box of sepia photos "of prairies and rodeos and mountains and rivers". His father, it turned out, had been an engineer who built railways in Canada. "He was a keen photographer, and the photos were a record of the obstacles he had overcome as a railway engineer," Ernie Shannon noted.

On returning from Canada, Shannon's father was unable to find work as an engineer, so sat the civil service exam. Ernie, meanwhile, left Belfast College of Technology at 16. Later he was encouraged to go to Queen's University Belfast where, after gaining his degree, he lectured in aeronautical engineering.

There he met the mechanical engineer Professor Bernard Crossland, who persuaded him to give up aeronautics and concentrate on the fracture of ultra-high pressure vessels, then used for making polythene. Shannon received a PhD for this work, and was recruited by British Gas in 1970. He retired from the company in 1996.

Shannon was president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1996. He was elected to the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1987 and was a vice-president from 2000 to 2003.

He received honorary doctorates from Queen's Belfast and Sheffield University and was appointed CBE in 2001. For his work on pipeline 'pigs', he was awarded the Royal Society Mullard Medal and the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award.

Ernest Shannon is survived by his wife, Annabelle, and their two children.

Sunday Independent

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