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M Squared OPOs to aid oil & gas industry

16 Oct 2012

UK’s Technology Strategy Board funds two hyperspectral imaging projects based on the company’s “Firefly” optical parametric oscillator (OPO).

Photonics technology developed by Glasgow-based M Squared Lasers is to be used in two projects designed to help make the UK’s oil and gas sector safer and more competitive.

Thirteen different small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will share a £1 million fund provided by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) that is designed to aid the ageing infrastructure in the North Sea by assessing the feasibility of a variety of new technologies.

The UK has extracted hydrocarbons from the North Sea since the early 1970s, but with production from the field now having peaked there is a desire to extend the lifetime and reliability of the remaining hydrocarbon reservoir using new technologies.

Wide frequency sweep
M Squared, set up in 2006 by Graeme Malcolm and Gareth Maker, based both of its successful project proposals around the “Firefly” optical parametric oscillator (OPO). It generates a wide sweep of frequencies in the mid-infrared, a strong absorption region for all hydrocarbons.

The company told optics.org that both projects are based on active hyperspectral imaging. One project will involve working with an oil industry partner to develop the ability to scan and image gas leaks from offshore oil rigs. The second project, with a different oil company, will focus on the infrastructure used to transfer oil and gas.

The Firefly infrared imaging system was originally developed for military applications, and under the TSB projects it will now be adapted.

“We would be reconfiguring the Firefly to better suit the oil and gas application,” M Squared’s marketing director David Armstrong said. “The Firefly Imager contains a Firefly OPO, dual-axis galvanometers, and a sophisticated system used to raster scan the beam and detect the returned signal.”

“This allows video images of a scene to be made. The system is man-portable and we are aiming to develop the ability to detect with sensitivity down to parts-per-billion at distances of hundreds of meters.”

Ageing infrastructure
With supply from the North Sea having peaked, investment in platforms has slowed. Much of the infrastructure in the field has exceeded its initial design lifetime and is beginning to show its age.

That was highlighted earlier this year when a leak from Total’s Elgin platform released methane over a period of 52 days, before it was plugged with mud. While the environmental damage caused by the leak was regarded as minimal by UK authorities, the impact was certainly felt by the French operator.

Shortly after the leak was spotted, 238 workers were evacuated from the platform. Total estimated that some 200,000 m3 of gas was leaking each day, but admitted that it could not make a direct measurement of the leakage rate and was relying on spotter planes and satellites to monitor the situation.

A sensitive stand-off imaging system such as that promised by M Squared could prove invaluable during such leaks, and would also help oil and gas firms to maximize their hydrocarbon extraction – and financial returns - by identifying smaller leaks and losses in their infrastructure.

Iain Gray, the chief executive of the TSB funding body, explained the rationale behind the feasibility studies, saying: “Investment in innovation is important to help prolong the life of the UK’s hydrocarbon reservoirs and increase the global competitiveness of the UK oil and gas sector.”

“Supporting SMEs capable of high growth, working with other companies in the oil and gas sector, will help to maximise UK assets, assist in sustaining a strong supply chain, and help in supplying global markets.”

Aside from M Squared, which was the only company to receive backing for two projects, the SMEs to receive funding for technical feasibility studies include: Cybula Ltd, Exilica Ltd, Geothermal Anywhere Ltd, Industrial Tomography Systems plc, LUX Innovate Ltd, Paradigm Flow Services, Process Asset Integration and Management Ltd, Sciencesoft Ltd, Smart Component Technologies Ltd, Smart Reamer Drilling Systems Ltd, Transvac Systems Ltd and WFS Technologies Ltd.

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