Space technology could benefit subsea oil and gas exploration

Technology originally designed to measure gravity in space is being adapted for use in oil and gas exploration.

Its developers claim the low-power sensor technology, based on recent advances in laser and quantum atomic optics, will be the first of its kind to take readings in deep subsea environments and will be deployed on autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) or remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

Dr Charles Wang, an astrophysicist at Aberdeen University, is leading the technology development and discussed his work yesterday at the British Science Festival.

‘This technology was initially developed for space applications and therefore there’s some analogy between the autonomous requirements for satellite missions and AUV operations,’ he told The Engineer. ‘There is an opportunity for some of this cutting-edge technology to be transferred to the subsea industry.’

In a statement, he explained that high-sensitivity sensors pick up small gravitational changes that indicate the presence of an object and that this technology has been used for decades in the oil and gas industry to detect prospective oil fields.

However, the technology is too large and power hungry to take under water and been limited to work above the sea level with companies using gravity measurements as part of airborne surveys.

The new sensing technology, known as a cold atom trap, sees elements such as Rubidium super-cooled and trapped in an atom cloud that is said to act like a highly precise laser that can measure gravity in a way that is much more accurate than a normal optical laser.

The project has so far modelled and simulated a gravity survey that could be applied under water to understand the characteristics required for the sensor. The next stage is to develop the cold atom trap into a functioning prototype.

Wang said that the compact sensor — being developed in collaboration with Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, a number of subsea inspection companies and some major oil exploration companies — would operate at around 100W for a number of hours and that the initial field trial would take place in the next couple of years.