Why Measure Moisture in Natural Gas?

Trace moisture analysis is a critical measurement in the Natural Gas Industry. Water content in natural gas increases both the cost of transportation and compression and does nothing to increase the heating value of the gas. Even in small trace amounts, water can combine with O2, CO2 and H2S to form a corrosive mixture that can cause damage to a pipeline, even to the point of rupture. For these reasons, natural gas is typically ‘dried’ or dehydrated to remove as much water as possible before its introduction into the pipeline network.

Moisture measurements are performed before and after processing and storage and during transportation to ensure that the water content of the gas falls within acceptable limits. These levels are set by tariff and govern the custody transfer between the current owner and future owner of the gas as it is being moved through the pipeline. Within the U.S., the established moisture limit for interstate transfer is 7 lbs/mmscf.

Trace Moisture Measurement Technologies

Several technologies are available to measure the moisture content in natural gas. There are advantages and disadvantages associated with each with some more popular with pipeline operators than others.

TDL (Tunable Diode Laser)

This technology provides a non-contact method of continuous moisture measurements and is based on the Beer-Lambert Law.

The Law states that when a laser is passed through a sample gas, its light energy will be absorbed by the water molecules of the gas in its pathway at specific wavelengths. This absorbed energy can be measured and used to calculate the amount of water content in the sample gas.
  • Fast, accurate moisture measurements.
  • More resistant to contaminants found in natural gas, such as glycol, methanol and H2S .
  • Minimal maintenance, and no calibration is required.
  • Expensive when compared to other technologies.


Analyzers with this technology typically utilize aluminum-oxide sensors. The construction of these sensors involves depositing a thin layer of porous gold over a small matrix layer of aluminum oxide with parallel pores, all on top of an aluminum base. When water molecules in the sample gas pass through the sensor and collect in these pores, an additive capacitance reaction takes place that produces a low voltage alternating current. This current is used to calculate the amount of water in the sample gas. Pros:
  • Approved for hazardous areas
  • Operates in temperatures from -110°C to 60°C
  • Small size and can be installed at a distance from Analyzer
  • Struggles with long response times when moving from wet to dry samples
  • Vulnerable to Sulphur compounds
  • Requires annual manual maintenance

Quartz Microbalance

This type of sensor technology uses a quartz substrate that is coated with a hygroscopic polymer film. Once voltage is applied, the entire structure oscillates. When moisture comes in contact with the film, it gets absorbed and increases the mass of the entire quartz structure. This increased mass changes the frequency of the oscillation and is proportional to the partial pressure of the water level in the sample gas.Pros:
  • Quick readings
  • Can provide readings below 1 ppm
  • Sensor surface prone to contamination
  • Requires large supply of span gas to calibrate
  • High manual maintenance


This approach relies on passing a light beam through a sensor and measuring the change in wavelength. The sensor head is coated with a substrate, consisting of materials having high and low refractive indices (SiO2 and ZrO2 are typically used). The substrate has small pores with a size specific to water molecules.

If water molecules are present in the gas sample, they will be absorbed by the substrate and cause the refractive index of the light beam to change as it passes through the sensor. This change will also cause a change in the wavelength, which is proportional to the amount of water molecules measured on the sensor. The moisture measurement is finally calculated from a reference that plots dew temperature against wavelength shift.
  • Intrinsically safe
  • Sensor can be installed at line pressure
  • Slow response time
  • High maintenance costs

Latest TDL Analyzer Designs

New TDL Moisture Analyzers have been introduced to the market in recent years. Based on the Beer-Lambert Law, manufacturers can control 2 things in their TDL design to further optimize the measurement accuracy and reliability of the Analyzer.

image of laser passing in cell chamber – single pass vs multi-pass
Multi-pass cell design lengths the laser path without increasing the Analyzer’s overall size

Design Change #1

First, the newer TDL Absorption spectrometers feature a longer optical laser path for maximum absorption. This is achieved by utilizing a multi-pass absorption cell in the design of the sample gas chamber. Compared to a single-pass design, the multi-pass laser travels a distance that is many times longer. This clever approach achieves a longer laser path without having to increase the overall size of the Analyzer.

sample image of measurement waveform
Sample waveform of a TDL moisture measurement

Design Change #2

Second, manufacturers have begun releasing new TDL Moisture Analyzers that measure at a specific wavelength. Since different wavelengths provide different levels of accuracy and precision, companies have conducted R&D to target which ones are the best to use. In fact, some manufacturers have put certain wavelengths under patent protection for use only with their Analyzers.

Important Features to Consider

Measuring trace moisture in the Natural Gas Industry comes with its own set of unique challenges. Therefore, users should be cognizant if an Analyzer can handle or accommodate the following requirements:

BARRACUDA MODEL 4010BR can be fully powered by a solar panel.
BARRACUDA MODEL 4010BR can be fully powered by a solar panel.

Low Power Consumption

There are times when pipeline operators need to perform trace moisture measurements in a remote field location where no supply of electricity is available. In these instances, solar power can be a viable solution only if the power requirements of the Analyzer remain below a certain level for full operation.

MODEL 4010BR from AMI has an easy software solution for realigning peaks remotely. No need to ship the unit back to the manufacturer.
MODEL 4010BR from AMI has an easy software solution for realigning peaks remotely. No need to ship the unit back to the manufacturer.

Absorption Peak Realignment

Over time, the signature peaks gradually shift on the x-axis of the measurement waveform of a laser-based Moisture Analyzer. When this happens, the accuracy and reliability of the moisture measurement can be impacted. To realign the peaks, some manufacturers require users to complete a complicated manual process in the field or for customers to ship their analyzers back and pay a substantial fee. However, new solutions now exist which allow customers to use software on a laptop, while connected to the Analyzer, to complete the process. It is not only easier, but it reduces the Analyzer’s downtime from performing trace moisture measurements.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a moisture analyzer used for?

A moisture analyzer is an analytical instrument used to measure the trace amount of water in a dry gas stream. The measurement from a moisture analyzer can be used to perform certain actions, like activate a process alarm or alert operators to the presence of moisture in their gas stream. Moisture analyzers are commonly used to detect moisture in natural gas, dry nitrogen, and biogas.

What is the working principle of a moisture analyzer?

There are different working principles of a moisture analyzer, based on the measurement technology being used. Tunable diode laser gas analyzers will measure the absorbance of laser light by the moisture in a gas stream at a known wavelength and convert it into a moisture reading. Aluminum-oxide analyzers work by measuring water molecules as they pass through a porous gold and aluminum oxide matrix on a sensing probe. An additive capacitance reaction takes place, which produces a low-level alternating current which is then translated into a moisture measurement. Chilled mirror measuring detects the level of moisture in the gas stream that condenses on a mirror surface.

What is the best moisture analyzer?

Tunable Diode Laser or TDL Gas Analyzers are the best moisture analyzers for measurement of trace moisture in gas streams. They provide fast accurate moisture measurements that are not impacted by contaminates in the gas stream. AMI’s MODEL 4010LX Moisture Analyzer is a light weight, compact and cost-effective design that provides continuous gas measurements at trace levels. It includes many standard control features that are not found on other moisture analyzers.

How do you do moisture analysis?

Moisture analysis within a gas stream is done with a Moisture Analyzer. A small sample line is connected to the main gas source, and the target gas flows through the gas analyzer. The Moisture Analyzer will use one of many potential measurement methods to detect the level of moisture in the gas stream.

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