Scientists at General Electric Global Research in Niskayuna will soon start work on developing sensors for monitoring carbon dioxide underground, where it is hot enough to boil water and the pressure is the equivalent to four miles under the ocean.
The project is a $1.2 million joint venture between GE Global Research and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, with the hope of building a multipoint sensing system of underground wells of carbon dioxide. These wells are about a mile below the surface and are viewed as a promising alternative destination for carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, as opposed to emitting them into the air and contributing further to global warming.
GE Global Research is being tasked with developing technology that could monitor those storage sites for any potential gas leaks.
William Challener, lead scientist on the project for GE Global Research, said the work builds on existing GE technology, which is capable of testing temperature and pressure from a single point in a well. But in this case, the Glenville resident said, multiple sensors are required along a mile-long fiber-optic cable that can track carbon dioxide and deliver results wirelessly.
“We’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before,” said Challener, who is the principal investigator and physicist at the company’s photonics lab.
As to whether the work, which will begin in January, can actually be done, he said early “back-of-the-envelope” calculations suggest the project is possible.
In noting the challenges, he highlighted that similar temperatures can only be found on the Earth’s surface at volcanic hotspots. The pressure at those points can reach about 10,000 pounds per square inch, which is like feeling 41⁄4 miles of the ocean pressing down on you. The current sensor can briefly handle about a third of that pressure.
Existing GE technology will be modified for the project, which has a window of two years.
Aside from developing the technology in that time, the handful of scientists working on the project also need to ensure the sensors can handle about 20 years of work in the field. Because they can’t give their prototype a 20-year practice run, Challener said, they’ll administer conditions that would mimic the wear and tear of years of use to test its potential longevity.
“The end goal is to ensure confidence in the long-term stability of [carbon dioxide] sequestration site,” he added in a statement.
If the technology can be developed, it could have applications in a variety of fields, like alternative energy. These sensors could help explore oil and gas wells far below the Earth’s surface.