Microchips are in your computers, your phones, your cars and appliances and just about everything else that involves electricity these days. But why would you drop them down an oil well?
A Rice University lab is working on the answer: tiny integrated circuits that will be sent into the depths to report back on what they find.
Aydin Babakhani, a Rice assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and his team of 25 students are building a new generation of microchips not much bigger than grains of sand. They will go with the flow to map the cracks and pores through which oil and gas move to the surface. The chips will return data to create high-resolution maps of reservoirs and formations formed by hydraulic fracturing. The data can be utilized to tremendously reduce oil extraction costs in an era that reduced oil prices calls for technology and innovation.
The research is being funded through sponsored research grants, most recently a $2.4 million award to Babakhani's Integrated Systems and Circuits group by a major energy producer.
Babakhani said his Houston-based team is perfectly positioned to address the industry's demand for advanced chip-based sensor technologies with its expertise in sensors, custom integrated chips, and proximity to the energy capital of the world.
"What this technology now allows us to do is to create intelligent oil and gas fields," Babakhani said. The sensors will map formations and continuously monitor the leaks and blockages in the pipelines to minimize the environmental factors and at the same time reduce the cost of production.
Babakhani has seen a surge of interest in monitoring technologies developed by his team, reflected in the nearly $5 million in sponsored-research contracts he has signed in the last six months. Among them is a new $1.9 million grant to develop a potentially life-saving technology, a miniature terahertz-based sensor that continuously monitors for leaks of highly toxic hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide is highly regulated by various government agencies, such as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), because of its toxicity and adverse effects on the environment.
"The most exciting part of the research is that we are tackling extremely challenging technical problems in designing high-performance integrated circuits. These circuits need to operate in gigahertz to terahertz frequencies, produce a lot of power in a high-pressure/temperature environment, and detect extremely weak signals", Babakhani said. During the last year, his students have received multiple Best Paper Awards in leading circuit and microwave conferences. Among them are "An 8-psec 13dBm Peak EIRP Digital-to-Impulse Radiator with an On-chip Slot Bow-Tie Antenna in Silicon," that won the Best Paper Award in IEEE International Microwave Symposium, in June 2014, "A 30GHz Impulse Radiator with On-Chip Antennas for High-Resolution 3D Imaging," that won the Best Paper Award in IEEE Radio and Wireless Symposium, in January 2015, and "A 4.6-5.35GHz Transceiver with 38dB On-Chip Self-Interference Cancelation at 10kHz Offset Frequency", that was among the Best Paper Finalists in IEEE Radio Frequency Integrated Circuits Symposium, in June 2015.
He said the ongoing miniaturization of sensors along with their low cost and improved performance will have dramatic impact on the oil and gas industry. As an example, he noted his lab's development of a spectrometer that locates and measures asphaltenes – deposits that clog production pipes – by detecting their free radicals' electrons spins. The lab reduced what had been a $500,000, cabinet-sized machine to a sensor that costs $100 and can be sent downhole. The technology is currently being commercialized through a Rice spin-off company. The company received third award among 62 companies presented in the Rice Alliance Energy and Clean Technology Venture Forum.