Bridging the hydrocarbon Gulf

THROUGH the Wealth From Oceans national research flagship project, CSIRO is collaborating with WA’s Curtin University of Technology and the University of Western Australia to develop nanosensors designed
to detect and differentiate hydrocarbons in a marine environment.
The project has adopted a multi-pronged approach of developing a number of different prototypes and testing them simultaneously.
The research team is currently adapting prior CSIRO achievements in nanoscience to nanosensor development, in addition to exploring multiple transduction mechanisms, investigating multiple sensing mechanisms,
testing a number of conventional sensor platforms, and investigating theoretical modelling and synthetic chemistry.
Following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the rig’s operator BP engaged researchers from the flagship project to help map the oil’s location and movement.
The team deployed the CSIRO-developed hydrocarbon sensor array system, which detected different types of hydrocarbons (for example, polyaromatic and volatile) in the environment at varying concentrations and
in real time.
The system, mainly used for petroleum exploration, enables the rapid analysis of hydrocarbons in the water column. It consists of a number of sensors that are divided between two tanks.
The primary tank, which is continually supplied with marine water via a hose, contains four rapidly responding sensors that can detect the presence of hydrocarbons within seconds. The second tank has four sensors that determine the type and composition of the detected hydrocarbons.
The second tank is only filled once the primary tank sensors reach a threshold value; its sensors respond comparatively slower (within minutes) than the sensors in the primary tank. To validate results, water samples are taken for further conventional water analysis.
Along with GPS coordinates and real-time information, the sensor data is then imported into a geographical information system that graphically displays the concentrations of the hydrocarbons along the area surveyed.
To date, the Wealth From Oceans research team has surveyed more than 7500 nautical miles of surface water in the Gulf of Mexico.
According to CSIRO, data obtained from the array system helped BP to better understand the affected marine environment.
In addition, further analyses of the data allowed informed choices and strategies to be made.
Prior to the system’s deployment in the Gulf, CSIRO scientists initially conducted two successful, small-scale field trials in relatively pristine Australian waters to test its long-term operational stability.


By Danica Newnham

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