Using Lasers in the Arctic

Using laser beams to send high-speed streams of data, a technique that has been used by the US Navy for secure submarine communications through ice, is being offered as an option for offshore oil operations. The possibilities range from using pulsed laser signals to both measure the thickness of ice sheets and detect oil leaks beneath them in the Arctic, to providing data links for autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) harvesting data from wireless seismic sensors on the ocean floor.

So far, the most concrete version of this idea is the simulation provided by defense-contractor-turned-offshore-oil-technology-company Qinetiq (pronounced kinetic). It presented its ideas about laser communication and testing at OTC’s Arctic Technology Conference in Houston, Texas, this February. The company is also working on options for communication links in deep water, where there are a lot more potential users.

These technologies are based on what Qinetiq has learned from long experience developing laser communications for the military, which shares some needs with the oil exploration and production (E&P) sector, said Greg Mooradian, a consultant playing a key role developing Qinetiq’s laser communications capabilities.

“No capability exists to detect and map oil accumulated under ice,” he said. The company has designed methods for gathering data on ice thickness and leaks from planes as well as from AUVs.

In a presentation at the conference, Mooradian said the simulations indicated that an airplane flying 2,000 ft above ice that is 8 ft thick and has 4 in. of snow on it could spot the oil using a laser.

The system would be built using components used for lidar, a method combining pulsed laser light and radar. Qinetiq would use extremely rapid pulses of focused light for optical remote sensing, most often for measuring the contours of the land or ocean bottoms. In this case, it would be able to meausre the thickness of an ice sheet and also look for oil beneath.

Oil could be seen because it fluoresces when exposed to a blue-green laser. The wavelength used would not cause a similar reaction in microorganisms, which fluoresce at different wavelengths, Mooradian said.

A thick layer of ice would seem to be a formidable barrier, but submarines have long been penetrating ice with laser systems for point-to-point communications. Rather than thinking of it as a wall, “think of it as a thick cloud,” Mooradian said, adding that frozen water absorbs relatively little light.

Given the slow pace of Arctic exploration, a more likely early application of this method is in deepwater offshore E&P as an alternative to sending acoustic signals for wireless communication. On the plus side, lasers can offer higher bandwidth and are not affected by nearby noise.

Using Lasers in the Arctic

Stephen Rassenfoss, Emerging Technology Senior Editor

01 April 2014

Volume: 66 | Issue: 4