CSIRO hydrocarbon sensor system underway onboard the research vessel.

CSIRO hydrocarbon sensor system underway onboard the research vessel.

CSIRO scientists monitoring the BP oil spill

CSIRO scientists have been deployed to help monitor the leading edge of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

  • 8 September 2010 | Updated 5 February 2014

In May 2010, researchers from CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans Flagship were engaged by BP Exploration & Production Inc, on behalf of the Unified Area Command (UAC), to help map the oil's location and movement.

They deployed the hydrocarbon sensor array system, a CSIRO developed platform that detects different types of hydrocarbons (eg polyaromatic and volatile) in the marine environment, at varying concentrations and in real time.

The data obtained will help BP and the UAC to better understand the affected marine environment and to inform choices on further analyses and strategies to be employed.

The research team and deployment to the Gulf of Mexico

CSIRO researchers will help map the oil's location and movement.

Two teams of four scientists, led by Dr Andrew Ross, worked in rotation, spending one month at a time at sea.

They operated on a 24 hour roster so that the semi-autonomous system could be operated around the clock.

CSIRO deployed its first team and sensor equipment to the Gulf of Mexico in late May. 

They departed onboard a survey vessel to the survey site on 2 June 2010.

The research team worked with BP and the vessel captains and crew to fit out M/V Ryan Chouest with the appropriate facilities for efficient science operations.

CSIRO scientist working on underway pump.

CSIRO scientist working on underway pump for hydrocarbon sensor systems before the pump's subsequent deployment into water column.

This included the fitting of:
  • a new communications system
  • cranes
  • a winch
  • an echo sounder system
  • a laboratory
  • several offices.

In the first 12 weeks, the research vessel operated predominantly along the Florida, Alabama and Mississippi coastlines, as well as closer towards the spill site.

They surveyed over 7,500 nautical miles of surface waters in the Gulf, gathering data on the extent of the oil spill. 

The hydrocarbon sensor array system

Developed by CSIRO's hydrocarbon sensors team, the hydrocarbon sensor array system enables rapid analysis of hydrocarbons in the water column.

Its major application is for petroleum exploration.

However, it can also be applied to a range of other applications including:

  • environmental monitoring of marine pollution
  • gaining an increased understanding of ocean changes
  • measurement of changes and human impacts upon marine environments.

The array system consists of a number of sensors that can detect different types of hydrocarbons at varying sensitivities.

The sensors are divided between two tanks:

  • The primary tank contains four rapidly responding sensors that can detect the presence of hydrocarbons within seconds. This tank is continually supplied with marine water via a hose 
  • The second tank contains four sensors, with a comparatively slower response time (within minutes), that determine the type and composition of the detected hydrocarbons. This secondary tank is filled once the primary tank sensors reach a threshold value.
CSIRO scientists taking oil mousse samples from water hose.

CSIRO scientists taking oil mousse samples from water hose used on the underway hydrocarbon sensor system.

To validate results, water samples are taken for further conventional water analysis.

The hydrocarbon sensor data is obtained along with GPS coordinates and displayed in real time.

The data is then imported into a geographical information system that graphically displays the concentrations of hydrocarbons along the area surveyed.

While the technology was in the development phase, CSIRO scientists initially conducted two successful, small-scale field trials in relatively pristine Australian waters to test the long-term operational stability of the system.

Operating this system during the Gulf of Mexico spill provided the CSIRO team with the opportunity to trial their technology and systems in a real-life scenario.

The team are continuing to refine and improve this technology.

CSIRO Scientist on board the research vessel just before departure of the Hydrocarbon Sensors Team from Port.

CSIRO Scientist on board the research vessel just before departure of the Hydrocarbon Sensors Team from Port.

Monitoring the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

For the Gulf deployment, measurements were made of waters from between 1-2 metres below sea surface, with occasional casts to 130 metres to enable a vertical profile of hydrocarbons to be mapped.

In addition, further analyses of samples by gas chromatography mass-spectroscopy were performed onboard to ground truth sensor results.

The data was interpreted and reported on a daily basis to BP and the UAC.

Whilst the monitoring project provided some new challenges for the platform, the system performed well and provided valuable data, which aided the understanding of the oil movement and location.

Read more about our research in Locating hydrocarbon resource deposits using nanosensors.