Saudi Aramco: Using lasers to fingerprint oil

Occasionally scientists develop an invention that turns out to have far more applications than originally thought.
The Research and Development Center (R&DC) has built a truly unique instrument designed to identify oil by using a laser. The laser is used to excite the fluorescence spectra of oil within extremely short time frames — two to five nanoseconds. All the fluorescence data is coalesced, and two dimensional diagrams are produced, which serve as oil spectral fingerprints. 

Ezzat M. Hegazi, senior research scientist and activity leader for designing and building the instrument, is very proud of the device. “The system is based on two previous patents and three recently submitted invention disclosures, and it was designed and produced in Saudi Aramco’s R&DC, which in itself has garnered many new patents for new systems and concepts.” 

He added, “We developed a truly unique, multipurpose laser instrument that is robust enough for field applications. It is easily transportable as is, but we’re also working on a remote sensing version that can be used in helicopters to detect and identify oil spills and seepage into water.” 

As planned, there are many uses that are based on spectral identification of oil. Crude oil identification helps our people distinguish among crude oils from different grades and different commercial oils. 

This means that, using techniques that seem to come from the popular TV show “CSI,” oil spills can be fingerprinted and their grades identified based on the oil’s spectral characteristics uncovered by the device, which had not been possible until now. 

Similarly the device makes it possible to identify the ingredients of blended crude oils as well as blended refined oils in order to measure the blending ratios. 

In fact, in some cases the system can measure blending ratios down to 0.001 percent — ideal for quality control for refineries, multi-product distribution pipelines and pumping stations. 

However, it doesn’t stop there; the invention is an application generator. It has many uses, and there are many more applications that will be developed based on the needs of different disciplines inside and outside Saudi Aramco. 

For example, a few exciting applications other than crude-oil identification include: 

Illegal Cocktailing Detection of Fuel Oils. The device can detect the illegal commercial blending of gasoline, diesel fuels and jet fuels. 

Drag Reducing Agent (DRA) Measurements. DRA cuts the cost of fuel distribution in pipelines and the device can quickly and easily monitor DRA in pipelines and pumping stations. 

Oil Exploration. The oil fingerprinting techniques can be used as an additional investigative tool for geological continuity assessment. 

Oil Deterioration Identification. Degradation of refined oils such as transformer oil and engine oil can be identified through the spectral fingerprints. 

Other potential applications include: 

Water-in-oil, Emulsion and Total Sulfur Measurements. Ongoing research is being carried out to use the device in detecting microscopic amounts of water and total sulfur in refined oils. 

Salt content monitoring in oil. 

Asphaltenes determination in crude oils.

Viscosity monitoring in pipelines. 

The device has immense potential for a wide variety of uses in many areas. To date, R&DC has received several positive customer comments on the invented detection methods, which have been developed on an existing prototype instrument in the lab.

These techniques provide very convenient and fast (30 seconds per sample) measurement without resorting to any sample preparation. In some measurements, such as DRA contaminations, the instrument can detect sub PPM (part per million) levels by simply pushing a button.

As Awad M. Mofleh, Technical Services Program director at R&DC said, “We see the device as a tremendous homegrown system that will make it easy for scientists to break the barriers between their disciplines. We believe the system will be vitally important both inside and outside Saudi Aramco. The instrument is the fruit of team work that includes Maha A. Sayegh and Abdullah H. Grainees, both Saudi junior scientists who have developed a unique research experience in developing such a system.”

The research and development that led to the production of the device is an example of the specialized effort played by the R&DC to provide innovative solutions for technical problems in field operations. Realizing long-term operation needs triggered in-depth scientific research in the R&DC labs which, in the end, led to a customized solution fit for large-scale field deployment within Saudi Aramco. 

Omar S. Abdulhamid, R&DC manager, said, “We view our relationship with our customers as an important source of ideas and enhancements that creatively address their needs through our research and technology development capabilities. 

“Our organization exists to serve our customers and the Company, and we love to be challenged to exceed expectations in timeliness and quality. The device is an ideal example of this type of R&DC effort.”

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