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Fibre optic exploration

02nd August 2012

Development of fibre optic sensory technology for use in the oil and gas industry is hotting up. Researchers, led by the Interdisciplinary Photonics Laboratories at the University of Sydney, believe they have entered a new field in fibre optic sensor technologies with huge industrial potential.

Does fibre optic sensing technology have the failsafe potential to both enhance oil and gas recovery and improve environmental monitoring to better ensure safe and responsible production?

Monitoring and data transmission using fibre optic sensors and optical fibre in cabling is now commonplace in upstream production, downstream transport, and refining of crude oil and natural gas throughout the world. With hydrocarbon consumption outpacing discovery, Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) techniques are being deployed worldwide to increase the recoverable assets in known reservoirs.

The fact that the technology has already been around for some time has not deterred researchers from investigating new ways the technology can withstand higher temperatures and pressures with little disruption.

A collaboration of Australian, Brazilian and German researcher has done just this, developing novel fibre optic sensors which can measure high temperatures in deep drilling equipment for use in the oil and gas sector. The research, led by Professor John Canning from Sydney University, aims to provide solutions to industry by enabling temperature measurements in remote and harsh environments not currently possible using conventional electronic sensors.

Multinational oil and gas companies have made significant investment in pursuing these technologies as hydrocarbon exploration meets new challenges of drilling at greater depths. “Given the high  temperatures possible in the next generation of deep sea oil wells, having effective sensing of the temperature of infrastructure and equipment, hooked into a sensing SmartGrid, will make the industry safer with much less chance of inaccuracies and negative environmental consequences,” said Canning.

The research collaboration with Brazil and Germany gave Professor Canning’s team access to global cutting-edge scientific research and technology. Professor Canning’s team used its links with fibre optic sensor experts at Brazil’s Petrobras Research Centre, Pontifica Catolica University and the Federal University of Technology in Curitiba. Industrial sensor fabrication experts from Germany’s Institute of Photonics in Jena were also engaged in the collaboration.

A high quality research environment provided by The National Fibre Facility at the University of New South Wales was crucial for Professor Canning’s team in developing a distributed network for sensor integration. Innovative nano-particle layers for optical fibres were created for this new approach to dual temperature and chemical sensing technology.

“This technology can potentially detect other molecules such as hydrocarbons, hydrogen, oxygen and ammonia with unprecedented accuracy. All of these chemicals are commonly encountered in the oil and gas industry,” added Canning.

Use in harsh environments

The researchers are not alone the pursuit of the technology. Hundreds of international companies are developing and investing in fibre optic sensing technologies; as exploration inches further into harder-to-reach, particularly subsea oilfield areas, the technology is becoming all the more vital.

Dominant supplier to the down hold fibre optic sensing equipment field, Verrillon, has already developed fibre optic products designed for use at elevated temperatures and pressures in aggressive chemical environments. Some 100km of its fibre is currently in service globally, says the company.
The optical fibres can be used in harsh environments as temperature and pressure monitoring systems, gyroscopes, fibre lasers and communication components and modules. The products range from near-cryogenic temperatures to 300°C, allowing down hole sensing, pipeline monitoring and process control in even the harshest environments, says the company.

Verrillon's harsh environment fibres are manufactured with a wide range of polymeric coatings including Polyimide, Silicone, Silicone-PFA and Acrylates. In addition, Verrillon's fibres are available with a hermetic coating that resists hydrogen, moisture and acid ingression. The fibres are suitable for operation over a wide range of temperatures up to 300ºC, depending on the coating combination selected. They are also available in a variety of different waveguide designs, including Multimode, Singlemode, Pure Silica Core and custom profiles.

Another company, PDM, is currently working with major oil and gas contractors on projects to monitor strain and temperature with fibre on pipelines, risers and subsea christmas trees.

PDM’s recently launched Omicron connector has already received considerable interest, according to the company. Because it is extremely compact, it is suitable for a wide range of different applications, says PDM. Features include low optical loss (<0.5dB) utilising industry standard self aligning ferrules and single mode and multi-mode fibre capability. The standard Omicron body material is stainless steel 316 to BS EN 10088 1.4404 and connectors are rated for operation up to 5000m mated and 4000m bulkhead open face.

Green credentials

Other companies view the technology more as a way to undertake exploration in a more environmentally friendly manner.  Canadian company, Cenovus Energy Inc., for example, is investing USD 1.1 million in Hifi Engineering Inc., a Calgary-based company that develops leading fibre-optic technology to improve underground well monitoring. The investment has been made through the Cenovus Environmental Opportunity Fund, which makes strategic investments in companies pursuing environmental innovations in energy and technology.

"This is a great example of how technology can help us continuously improve the way we produce energy," said Judy Fairburn, Executive Vice-President of Environment & Strategic Planning at Cenovus. "Leaks affect production, emit greenhouse gases and are expensive to repair. Hifi's technology allows us to fix these leaks quickly and cost effectively."  Hifi has developed technologies that use fibre-optic line as acoustic sensors to accurately pinpoint the source of leaks and results in faster and more cost effective repairs.

The environmental benefits of the technology in May were extolled by Jim Andersen, President US Seismic Systems (USSI), a subsidiary of Acorn Energy. Anderson told the US House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment on 10 May, Fibre Optic Sensing Technology had the potential to both enhance oil and gas recovery and improve environmental monitoring to better ensure safe and responsible production.

"Over the next decade, through the exploitation of unconventional resources, America could again become the largest oil & gas producer in the world", said Anderson, whilst giving an overview of the technology used by his company.

"Every revolutionary technology, such as fracking, has in it the seed of a problem like environmental issues or induced seismicity. Successfully pioneering solutions to these problems is a great opportunity for our nation. Both sides of the aisle are interested in learning about and supporting breakthrough innovations like our Ultra High Sensitivity fibre optic geophones that can help the oil & gas industry solve these problems and expand in an environmentally responsible manner," he said.

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