From oil to medicine & beyond
Norway is known for its groundbreaking technology within the field of petroleum research. Less known is that this very same technology has been transferred to the car and aerospace industries and can be used in the future to monitor patients wirelessly and map geohazards for subsea commuter tunnels in deep waters.
Norway has made great technological milestones within petroleum during forty years’ history. In the 1980s, Norwegian companies built a 500 metre tall concrete platform and towed it through the fjord to the Troll field, breaking the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest man-made structure ever moved. In the 1990s, Norway’s second largest gas field, Ormen Lange, was discovered in sea depths of up to 1,100 metres.
However, Ormen Lange is not only significant for its groundbreaking subsea development technology. It is also known for its contribution to geohazards research through the integration of various geo disciplines, providing new methodology and solutions for non-petroleum applications.
It began in the late 90s as an industry-funded study to determine whether the huge Ormen Lange subsea development and accompanying 1,200 kilometre pipeline could be constructed in the basin of the Storegga Slide, an ancient mega slide with a 300 kilometre escarpment which created a giant tsunami when the slope failed over 8,000 years ago.
“This was the largest slope stability study ever performed,” said James M. Strout, division director for monitoring and geophysics at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (NGI). “The scientific and engineering work from the Ormen Lange development was a significant technical milestone for geohazards research.”
Based in Oslo, the NGI is a leading international centre for research and consulting in the geosciences. NGI’s mandate is to help transfer R&D results to industry, including applications of technology developed for the petroleum industry into non-petroleum applications. Recent examples include applications of underwater instrumentation technology developed for offshore geohazards applications that can be used for support foundation installation and monitoring for industrial wind farm developments.
“We have the full breadth of geotechnical, geological and geophysical capabilities, combined with practical solutions for dealing with subsea specific challenges like pressure, corrosion, bio fouling, and limited access,” said Strout. “They pick NGI because of its cross-discipline approach and our experience with offshore operations.”
A current example is an R&D project at NGI related to seismic mapping. The oil industry normally employs large seismic vessels to chart geology formations to thousands of metres below the seabed in the search for hydrocarbon bearing formations. NGI is investigating the use of small-scale seismic investigations that could use fishing boats to map geological conditions for tunnels crossing Norwegian fjords.
Another example of relevant technology transfer is harbour remediation. NGI has worked with geophysical mapping using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) – used traditionally in the offshore industry for subsea installation work — to look at topography for the extent of dredging and depth of coverage over contaminated sediments.
“One of the most interesting possibilities is the application of the high quality geophysical tools developed offshore to our needs in port and harbour development, specifically with environmental remediation problems,” said Strout.
Monitoring Your Volvo & Your Heart
Less than 10 minutes away from NGI, there is a different type of research taking place at SINTEF ICT, but with a similar goal: spinning off petroleum technology for other uses.
SINTEF ICT specializes in microsensor technology. The sensors have many application areas, ranging from advanced nuclear research to downhole instrumentation in oil wells. They are costly to develop, but can be mass-produced at a fraction of the cost of traditional sensors. They are also more reliable and use less power than their predecessors, thereby opening up for new application areas.
Several of the sensors originally developed for harsh offshore environments are already applied in other areas, such as the automotive and process industry. An example is a spin-off company from SINTEF ICT is Presens, which has adapted pressure sensors originally developed for offshore use to monitor automotive engines. SINTEF ICT developed the first airbag sensor (accelerometer) back in the 1960s.
“There has been a silent revolution in the automotive industry,” said Ole Christian Bendixen, SINTEF ICT research director. “Modern cars now include numerous sensors controlling air bags, ABS, traction control, engine and emission control.” Similar requirements apply to sensor systems monitoring cars, planes and people. SINTEF ICT utilizes spinoff technology for applications in all these areas. Here cost is an issue. Therefore it has paid to adapt rather than redesign the sensor, which can then be mass-produced at a low cost.
An example of a current project is its collaboration with Volvo to develop a more reliable particle detector for monitoring the particle filter (soot) for diesel car engines. The recent volcanic eruption in Iceland addresses a potential improvement in safety of air travel. A similar system could be developed for monitoring particle flow into the jet engine and resulting wear.
The technology is also being adopted for medical uses. SINTEF ICT has developed a system for vital signs monitoring of soldiers for the US Department of Defense. The system is exposed to different climatic conditions: cold, heat and moisture. The same technology applies for monitoring of firemen, first responders and athletes.
“This is just the start of a new silent revolution – SmartWear – the integration of sensors and electronics in our clothing,” said Bendixen. “Not only will this development lead to more safety for workers in harsh environments, but could mean improved life quality and sense of freedom for patients with chronic diseases such as heart failure and diabetes.”