New Fluorescence Technology Targets Subsea Oil Leaks

Considering how long we’ve had oil pipelines, you would think methods of detecting a leak or spill would be far more sophisticated than they are now. Tragically, oil companies and regulators depend on aircraft equipped with long-range radar and scanners or, amazingly, the human eye. Unfortunately, our eyes can only see what floats to the surface, which means leaks often go undetected for days or even weeks.

Cambridge Consultants, a product development company out of the UK, thinks they’ve developed a better way. The company recently unveiled an early-stage oil spill detection technology platform capable of detecting the natural fluorescence of even tiny amounts of oil in or on water.

oil-on-water

Image via Cambridge Consultants

Did you know that crude oil is naturally fluorescent? Me neither. Cambridge Consultants specializes in developing fluorescence detection solutions for challenging applications such as clinical diagnostics equipment, fertility monitors and pregnancy tests, and authentication of valuable documents. Now the company wants to use its fluorescence experience to build a more sophisticated oil spill detection technology platform.

The system is still in its development stages, but it would basically work by spotting oil’s fluorescence in the water long before aerial scanners or the human eye could detect it from above. These sensing systems could be installed permanently underwater, adjacent to subsea pipelines, and make it possible to detect leaks immediately, rather than waiting for a slick to form on the water’s surface.

oil-droplet

Image via Cambridge Consultants

“Our work so far shows that any reliable oil spill detection system will need to use more than one sensing method, and the best combination will depend largely on where and how it is going to be used,” said Dr Frances Metcalfe, Associate Director, Oil and Gas, at Cambridge Consultants.  An oil spill ‘alarm’ system of sensors distributed across the seabed – or a series of oil platforms – is going to need a different design solution from a system for scanning a harbour or stretch of coastline from a distance to track oil spills that might be heading for the shore.”

The company will be demonstrating the technology at the ITF Technology Showcase (stand 59) in Aberdeen on November 1.

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog