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The oil industry requires greater levels of innovation to ensure it meets tighter regulations to protect the sensitive marine environment.

One area that is developing rapidly is the use of biosensors, which for oil operators can provide an early warning of contamination in the sea.

Dr Kirit Wadhia, principal environmental consultant with oil specialist firm Opus which was recently acquired by Aker Solutions after two decades of serving the industry, would like to see significant advances made in sensor technology in the next 20 years.

Research is already being carried out into how biosensors can be used to detect pollutants, such as oil, faster, cheaper and more accurately than technologies available at present.

Dr Wadhia said that within 20 years it may be possible to have miniature sensors permanently situated in the sea around oil platforms sending signals to a remote control base where changes to the marine environment during oil production could be monitored.

He said this could work when companies are dealing with the problem of cleaning up water that is pumped into wells to recover oil before it is discharged back into the sea.

“The ease with which monitoring of all aspects of changes that can be detected with sensors has been incredible”, he said. “The level of sensitivity, miniaturisation and modus operandi of detectors are all elements that will further improve with advances in technology.  .

“Agricultural and industrial operations will be effected with introduction of improved policing and prioritised legislative drivers.  Instrumentation with enhanced capabilities for detection and in situ monitoring will inevitably be in extensive use.

“Contamination and toxicity concerns will be addressed with testing protocols using biosensors, cell lines and biomarkers; methodologies currently in use will be viewed to be still in its infancy.  In other words, a move away from using bioassays with whole organisms to employment of sub-cellular techniques.”

Dr Wadhia said that in an ideal world scientists working in the oil industry would have biosensors in place in the diffused aquatic environment generating signals to tell them the impact of the combined effect of all chemicals in a given area. Based on this data they could determine the effect on organisms.     

At present the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is advocating that testing be carried using algae, invertebrates and microbial assays to monitor toxicity levels. The testing is performed in a controlled laboratory environment.

Remote biosensors in situ could provide round-the-clock results which could flag up any environmental changes as they happen, and with far greater accuracy.

“The benefits would be significant”, said Dr Wadhia. “The conditions in situ will be changing all the time and if you’re monitoring at specific points in time what has happened between those times? Biosensors will potentially allow you to look at this in real time 24/7 and see changes in environmental conditions constantly.

“At the moment chemical analysis in laboratories uses techniques like mass spectrometry and gas chromatography to detect low concentrations of specific chemicals which in future could be highlighted by these minute sensors.

“With chemical analysis, limit of detection in parts per billion (ppb) is virtually the norm, whereas in ecotoxicology reference to limits are essentially in parts per million (ppm). Sensors detecting chemicals at ppb levels would be a massive step forward.”