Fiber optic sensor systems developed by ECE researchers for down-hole oilwell applications was named on eof the top 100 inventions of 2003 by R&D Magazine. The 42-year-old R&D 100 Awards program honors the most technologically significant innovations developed by the international community. Past winning technologies have included the fax machine, HDTV, and, in 2002, another ECE invention: the Emitter Turn-Off Thyristor power switch.
The oilwell sensor developed by the Center for Photonics Technology (CPT) can measure temperature, pressure, flow, and acoustic signals in the harsh environment of oilwells, where traditional electronic components fail. The CPT sensor systems can reach depths exceeding 10,000 feet and provide real-time, long-term measurements of oil reservoirs. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), two-thirds of oil discovered in the United States remains untapped, largely because of lack of such data.
The sensors require no downhole electronics or electrical power. Optical data is retrieved using a PC plug-in spectrometer card, which keeps the system low cost and portable. The packaged size of the sensor head is less than 1 mm in diameter - about 1/20 the size of competing technology.
The sensors can be permanently installed or hydraulically deployed through small tubing, without pulling the wellhead and casing. This provides major cost savings especially for deep offshore wells.
The sensor was developed by Anbo Wang, CPT director, Gary Pickrell, CPT associate director, Russell May, Bing Qi, Hai Xiao, and many CPT graduate students. The DOE, Chevron, Virginia Tech's research division, the College of Engineering, and ECE provided support. Six oil-field sensor technologies are now licensed in Tubel Technologies of Woodlands, Texas.