Tiny, super cold atoms and the Earth's remaining oil sources

September 6, 2012

Ground-breaking space exploration technology is being used to develop an innovative new sensor for the subsea industry. Dr Charles Wang, an astrophysicist at the University of Aberdeen who is leading the development of the technology discussed his work at the British Science Festival today.

Devices used to measure the in space are being adapted to help detect the presence of undiscovered oil and gas fields. Those behind the research say they aim to have a sensor which is being deployed by companies in subsea conditions within the next five years.

Dr Wang said: "The usual we experience and understand is Earth's gravity, but in reality every object is a source of gravity.

"If you have a sensor with high enough sensitivity, it will pick up small gravitational changes which indicate the presence of an object. It is this technology which has been used for decades in the oil and gas industry to detect the existence of prospective oil fields."

So far this technology has proved too large and too power consuming to take underwater, and been limited to work above the sea level with companies using gravity measurements as part of their airborne survey work. Current research is working to develop a new sensor which will allow to be used, for the first time, in a subsea environment.

The key behind the research is the use of atoms like Rubidium.

Dr Wang continued: "When we cool these atoms to a super and trap them in an atom cloud, it acts like a highly precise laser that can measure gravity in a way that is much more accurate than a normal could achieve. No mechanical parts are involved in the process so it is much simpler and more reliable."

The technology, known as a cold , was originally developed for an entirely different purpose – to measure gravity in space. It was created through a research project undertaken with Rutherford Appleton Laboratory Science and Technology Facilities Council. The project had a similar emphasis – to improve on technology currently available but in this case to better the gravitational technology being employed in space.

"Sensing gravity in space allows us to probe the subsurface formation structure in the Earth's crust and this can help us in our understanding of climate change and in analysing geological problems such as earthquakes by tracking continental plate movement and detecting fault lines" said Dr Wang.

"The European Space Agency launched a satellite called GOCE in 2009 which obtained the highest precision of gravity measurement yet to be achieved. The technology we are developing is expected to surpass this.

"It is this exact same science that we are taking from space and applying subsea – having seen the potential for the cold atom technology to be used subsea, and the massive consequences this could have in helping the industry find previously undetected hydrocarbons."

The sensor will also have the potential to be used in subsea pipeline inspection work - an area of critical importance given the sector's ageing pipelines. 

Explore further: Space tech helps to find natural resources

Related Stories

Space tech helps to find natural resources

October 20, 2008

Using space-based technology developed during ESA's gravity mission studies, a novel gradiometer is being developed by a UK-based company to help oil and gas companies find the most appropriate locations to drill wells and ...

Deep sea pipelines to green gas production

October 10, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- University of Queensland researchers are working to tap into a wealth of natural gas resources located in distant, deep-ocean fields off the coast of Western Australia.

ESA's Earth Explorer gravity satellite on show

July 19, 2007

GOCE, ESA’s first satellite dedicated to measuring the Earth’s gravity field, has been presented to the press today in Turin, Italy, before being shipped to ESTEC – the space agency’s research and technology centre ...

March launch planned for GOCE gravity mission (Video)

February 4, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- ESA is now gearing up to return to Russia to oversee preparations for the launch of its GOCE satellite - now envisaged for launch on 16 March 2009. This follows implementation of the corrective measures after ...

420 magical seconds in space

December 19, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new tool to calculate the orientation of a satellite with respect to the Earth, developed by EPFL students, will be on board a European Space Agency rocket scheduled to launch in March 2012. This will be ...

Recommended for you

Climate change will drive stronger, smaller storms in US

December 5, 2016

The effects of climate change will likely cause smaller but stronger storms in the United States, according to a new framework for modeling storm behavior developed at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. ...

Extreme downpours could increase fivefold across parts of the US

December 5, 2016

At century's end, the number of summertime storms that produce extreme downpours could increase by more than 400 percent across parts of the United States—including sections of the Gulf Coast, Atlantic Coast, and the Southwest—according ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.