A team of scientists developing a device for monitoring oil pollution has won the top prize in a new environmental award scheme.
The instrument makes use of the latest advances in opto-electronics and has been developed primarily to help oil companies drilling in the North Sea improve the monitoring of oil levels in the contaminated water that results from their operations. Other applications envisaged include oil detection in the open sea and in rivers, estuaries, lochs and sewage.
The instrument has been developed by Hugh MacKenzie of Heriot-Watt University and David Binnie of Napier University in collaboration with a Moray-based firm, Speyside Electronics. With the Pounds 25,000 prize from the Enterprise Oil/Heriot Watt Environmental Award scheme they hope the device can go into production within the next two years.
Dr MacKenzie explains that 147 million tonnes of water were pumped back into the North Sea by oil producers in 1994. For every 100 tonnes of oil extracted from the North Sea reservoirs, 130 tonnes of contaminated water is discharged by production platforms.
The device offers continuous online monitoring of the cleanliness of water pumped back into the sea. The scientists say no single instrument entirely meets either the present needs of the oil industry or satisfies the requirements of future legislation, which may limit total hydrocarbon content in processed water to 30 parts per million or less.
The new device aims to address these needs. It uses a photoacoustic sensor placed in the outfall pipe. This fires pulses of laser light at selected wavelengths. By measuring the strength of the resulting acoustic wave, continuous monitoring of the level of dissolved and emulsified oil particles in the water is made possible.
The development team estimates that the global market for this kind of device is Pounds 100 million with the North Sea market alone worth Pounds 8.5 million. The United Kingdom's share of the market is currently running at Pounds 2 million per annum.