x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Masdar Institute and MIT partner to make micromachines for oil wells

Dubbed smart-mud, the sensors would be deployed thousands at a time to wirelessly send data on stress, acidity and other real-time factors to engineers above ground.

April Yee

Scientists from Abu Dhabi and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are at work on tiny sensors no more than four millimetres wide that could be sent deep into oil wells.

Dubbed smart-mud, after the drilling fluid that is shot into wells, the sensors would be deployed thousands at a time to wirelessly send data on stress, acidity and other real-time factors to engineers above ground.

MIT and its Abu Dhabi partners the Masdar Institute and the Petroleum Institute hope to complete a prototype in the next two to three years and are seeking an oil service company to sponsor their research, said Irfan Saadat, a professor of microsystems engineering at Masdar, the government-owned research university.

“We’re looking for funding to take it off the ground,” Mr Saadat said at an oil industry research conference in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. “The push is the technology is coming forward at the right moment. The pull is the requirements of the oil industry, the ability of monitoring something happening as you’re drilling a hole or fracking.”

The proposed sensors would rely on the tiny processors and ultra-low power circuits used in smartphones, as well as gallium nitride semiconductors – commonly used in LED displays – that are able to survive at temperatures of 900°C. The devices, which researchers hope to commercialise at US$10 to $100 apiece, would be able to produce their own power by harnessing vibration or acidity, and would be resistant to corrosion.

Mr Saadat declined to put a cost to the budget required to bring the technology to prototype, but said six to seven researchers would be needed on the job for three years.

“We are not standing on a vacuum here,” said Mr Saadat. “Once the packaging is done, if we get a partner in an oil service industry that wants to drive that then it really becomes a function of that. But from a technology point of view, the components are there.”

Mr Saadat’s presentation was one of several by locally based researchers at the Abu Dhabi International Research and Development Conference, and demonstrates how the transfer of oil and gas technology is no longer exclusively West to East. Scientists from the Masdar Institute and the Petroleum Institute also presented work on separating oil from water using nano materials and increasing oil recovery by introducing an electric charge and acid to reservoirs.

ayee@thenational.ae