Shell en­lists grav­i­ta­tional waves in its search for oil

▶ Shell is test­ing sen­sors built to help de­tect grav­i­ta­tional waves ▶ “It’s like, all of a sud­den, some­body turns on the mu­sic”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - Edited by Jeff Muskus Eric Ros­ton

Al­bert Ein­stein sug­gested a cen­tury ago that large-scale cos­mic vi­o­lence—two black holes col­lid­ing, for ex­am­ple—might send grav­i­ta­tional rip­ples through the uni­verse like a stone dis­turb­ing the sur­face of a pond. In Septem­ber physi­cists in the U.S. con­clu­sively de­tected grav­i­ta­tional waves for the first time, again prov­ing Ein­stein right. While it’s a safe as­sump­tion he wasn’t think­ing about how build­ing a wave ob­ser­va­tory might lead to find­ing oil and gas, two physi­cists in Am­s­ter­dam have started a com­pany bet­ting they can.

In­no­seis’s pro­to­type seis­mic sen­sor, not much big­ger than a fist, looks like a box with a golf tee stick­ing out of it. Royal Dutch Shell, which is test­ing In­no­seis’s sen­sors, hopes the light­weight, wire­less tech­nol­ogy can re­place its stan­dard sur­vey­ing equip­ment. Each of Shell’s $100 mil­lion seis­mic ex­plo­rations re­quires about 100,000 11-pound sen­sors, strung to­gether with 6,000 miles of cable. In­no­seis’s model, which is stomped into the ground ev­ery few yards, would in the­ory let the oil com­pany de­ploy 1 mil­lion 1-pound sen­sors, cov­er­ing much more ground, for the same price.

In­no­seis’s path was ob­vi­ous only in ret­ro­spect. Jo­hannes van den Brand, an as­tro­physi­cist at the Dutch Na­tional In­sti­tute for Su­batomic Physics, joined the hunt for grav­i­ta­tional waves in 2006, at­tracted by the sci­en­tific and en­gi­neer­ing chal­lenge. In 2009 he per­suaded Mark Beker, a half-Dutch New Zealan­der with a mas­ter’s in ap­plied physics, to pur­sue a Ph.D. in seis­mic­ity and grav­i­ta­tional-wave de­tec­tion. To Beker, the re­search was a chance “to make what seems like sci­ence fic­tion no longer sci­ence fic­tion.”

De­tect­ing how grav­i­ta­tional waves warp 3D space is tricky. The rip­ples are tiny. In­stru­ments must be sen­si­tive to

0.000000000000000001 me­ter, or about one ten-thou­sandth the width of a pro­ton. And the earth, with its con­stant rat­tle and hum, is a ter­ri­ble place to look for the waves.

To de­tect rip­ples, grav­i­ta­tional-wave ob­ser­va­to­ries iso­late their in­stru­ments from the earth’s in­ter­fer­ence. To sub­tract out low-grade seis­mic ac­tiv­ity, or “New­to­nian noise,” the fa­cil­i­ties mea­sure the ground out­side and ad­just ac­cord­ingly.

Beker spent his first year of Ph.D. re­search on a seis­mic-lis­ten­ing tour of Europe, work­ing on a way to ac­count for New­to­nian noise. He recorded what’s shak­ing, lit­er­ally. In Ger­many he mea­sured the ground near a fac­tory. “You could tell from the seis­mic sig­nal when peo­ple started, when they took a lunch break, and when they’d go home,” he says.

He and Van den Brand went look­ing for light­weight seis­mic sen­sors and wound up de­sign­ing some them­selves. In 2012 their re­search caught the at­ten­tion of Wim Walk, a physi­cist who man­ages Shell’s seis­mic oil-hunt­ing tech­nol­ogy. The com­pany needed to in­ves­ti­gate earth­quakes near fa­cil­i­ties around the Dutch town of Gronin­gen, where nat­u­ral gas ex­trac­tion has been linked to seis­mic ac­tiv­ity. Walk sug­gested that In­no­seis re­fine its sen­sors: They had to be small, cheap, and tough enough to sur­vive ex­treme tem­per­a­tures, or the oc­ca­sional truck wheel.

The com­pany is still test­ing In­no­seis’s equip­ment. The pro­to­type com­bines an ana­log in­stru­ment that mea­sures ground move­ment with a soft­ware sys­tem that dra­mat­i­cally shrinks power de­mand (and thus weight and cost) by switch­ing on gear only when it needs to time-stamp fresh data.

For sci­en­tists, Ein­stein’s grav­i­ta­tional waves of­fer a way to learn things about the na­ture of the uni­verse, Beker says. Un­til now, as­tron­omy was “like watch­ing a sym­phony play with­out sound,” he says. “It’s like, all of a sud­den, some­body turns on the mu­sic. You get to un­der­stand so much more. You get to see so much more.” In­clud­ing, per­haps, a lot more oil.

The bot­tom line In­no­seis’s sen­sors may be able to in­crease the range of Shell’s $100 mil­lion oil ex­plo­ration projects ten­fold.

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