Russ: Hi I’m Russ Capper and this is The EnergyMakers Show, coming to you from CERAWeek. My guest now: Dr. Aydin Babakhani, an Electrical Engineering Professor at Rice University, and a specialist in sensing miniaturization. Aydin, welcome to The EnergyMakers Show.
Aydin: Glad to be here, Russ.
Russ: You bet. So, tell us about your interest in miniaturization of sensing devices. I mean, you’re real serious about doing this, right?
Aydin: Right. We are actually very excited about what’s happening in the industry in general. The industry is going through a real transformation, and if you look into the energy prices now it’s becoming extremely competitive. So, what happens is that you have to bring technology to make sure and to help the energy industry to produce at a lower cost to be able to compete. So, this is the best time in terms of bringing miniaturization technology to do all sorts of sensing in energy production. We have two main objectives; one is obviously to minimalize the environmental impacts of the energy production. If you look into the estimates, we are seeing that by 2040 there’s going to be, the world will need 50% more energy, but where is that going to come from? 80% of that total energy will be from fossil, oils, LNG and all that, so what we want here at Rice University is being able to minimize the environmental impact of that and also reduce the cost of energy by bringing technologies to this.
Russ: Right, well I know that sensing has just been huge in the industry for quite some time, but it seems like you’ve taken it to a new level of miniaturization, which opens up all sorts of new applications.
Aydin: That’s exactly right. So, what we do at Rice, we are very focused on silicon based technology. And this is a technology that you’ll see in your iphones, basically, your smart phones. There are a massive amount of them, so over the last forty years, few trillion dollars was invested in bringing the cost of production of these technologies, mostly for consumer electronics, so you can build complex electronics at tiny scales at the cost of a few cents. But, that’s not really being actually used in the energy industry for many reasons. I mean, there are different requirements; there’s high temperature, pressure, and there is a massive information gap between Silicon Valley and the energy industry. So, what we are doing here is that in order to make an impact you need to move to next level. And what is next level? Next level is that you need to be able to build these complex sensors under the scale that the smaller proppant. These are as thin as your hair, basically. These sensors, not only include electronics processors, it also includes antennae. So, if you’re also doing miniaturization and antennae on the same scale. When you think about antennae you may think about big objects, but actually in our research, we are bringing antennae integration next to processor, on a complex chip that is a smaller than proppant. And what can we do with that, right? So, we are looking into all sorts of different problems. So, we are sending these microchips to, with hydraulic flow to basically fractures. Fracture mapping is a big problem; people don’t know exactly how to get to resolution of,
Russ: And if you have these proppant-sized sensors you can know exactly where you’re being successful.
Aydin: Yeah, and so they talk to you, they do localization, they do sensing, they talk to you, they know exactly where they are, that’s a big problem. The other one is we are sending, mixing them with the cement, they go behind the casing so you can actually detect every single leak. They are monitoring and listening 24/7. You can also send them, basically, with chemical injection tubes down the hole. When they come back, they keep recording. So, when they come to surface you are actually reading their memory, so there will be no expensive logging services in the future, actually, on this one.
Russ: Ok, so but these applications that you’ve just described are sensational. Are any of them actually done today?
Aydin: One of the unique things at Rice is that we don’t really stop in only necessarily publishing papers. We bring that to industry; we bring that back to industry, to the energy industry. I can tell you a couple of interesting examples. In 2011, we started working on a project to miniaturize a complex spectrometer called electron spin resonance, so what this does is basically it detects the single unpaired electron in chemicals, and the technology is similar to MRI machines. You’ve seen MRI machines; they’re big, huge, right? They’re super expensive. Obviously, you won’t be able to bring that, put on every well head, especially well heads that are producing 5-10 barrels a day, it’s just not feasible. So, what we did at Rice, we miniaturized that huge system, electron spin resonance, on basically we put 90% of the electronics on a tiny chip, and then the rest of the magnets and everything else on something that is this big, we certified it up to something like 500 PSI, 170 degrees C, and now it’s actually being commercialized, being deployed across all the fields from US, Canada, the Middle East. There are a lot of places that have this particular problem that’s called asphaltenes
Russ: And it’s this sensor that detects that.
Aydin: Yes, and so what happens is that asphaltenes, due to their nature, due to the free radicals, they have a strong signal to that, and in the past there was no sensor to monitor and detect them, so we have the world’s first online monitoring sensor for detecting and measuring the asphaltene content. And why is that important? Because in the past, companies either used to just ignore the problem. So, when the problem happened, and I have to tell what the problem is; so asphaltenes are like cholesterol of your blood. They can actually attach to each other, they can block the pipelines and they’re going to cause millions of dollars of problems. So, there was no online monitoring tool for that. People just used chemical inhibitors, very expensive chemical inhibitors, and by the way they have a lot of environmental impact just to try to remove these, minimize these problems.
Russ: Without even knowing how big of a problem it is.
Aydin: They don’t even know it, exactly, without even knowing what the problem is. So, we took basically a proactive method to this, so we are now continuously installing these at every well head, so when it continuously monitors the amount of asphaltenes that come to surface. When you’re doing weather plot you’re typically ok, but when you’re doing CO2 plot, flooding, that’s a major problem because it starts to take asphaltenes, leave it down the hole, it’s going to block your wells, reservoir, but what this typical sensor technology tells you, ok now asphaltenes are not coming to surface, they are staying in the reservoir; time to do something. Time to start to be proactive. So, you can inject chemicals, and one of the problems the industry doesn’t know what kind of chemicals to use. So, you can test different chemicals and see which one is working. And after you know that, you can minimize the amount of the chemicals you are using. Some of these are really expensive chemicals and you cannot simply afford to use them 24/7 for the entire year.
Russ: Right. So interesting. So, what I understand a little bit about your background, too is that you weren’t sort of aimed at the oil and gas industry very much at all until just a few years ago, is that right?
Russ: Because these sensing devices, you are pushing them into other markets and industries as well, right?
Aydin: Right, exactly. Right, so that’s an interesting story. I would say six, seven years ago, when I was in California, I graduated from Cal-Tech, we had no idea about the bio and gas industry, what the problems are and all of that. We were working on other problems like how to build miniaturized radars for autonomous cars. We actually built the first single chip radar that can actually generate signals, that can do sensing, that can even be used potentially for autonomous cars. So, after I moved to Houston in 2011, after spending a year at IBM in New York, I actually was fascinated by the size of the industry and the massive scale of it, and how much we can make an impact. And then that’s where I started learning about the problems of the industry and basically the first thing we noticed was that there was a lot of interesting, technically difficult problems you can work on in this industry. I can tell you one example, right? We are working on miniaturized radars for security imaging, for imaging human movements and all of that, and now we look into that problem in the oil and gas industry. In the oil and gas industry you have, you need to be able to build radars to detect and monitor multi-phase parameters in the flow. And if you’re doing that, if you’re capturing a human movement, that’s extremely slow; much easier problem. But if you’re doing that in a high flow rate, and you need to be able to detect oil, water, gas in high pressured temperature, that’s orders of magnitude more difficult. So, fundamentally, from a scientific point of view we have beautiful problems that we need to work, and from the interest from industry, they have been very supportive of all this.
Russ: Well, I can imagine. One more thing before I let you go. I mean, it seems to me, Aydin, that your miniaturization of these could also be used in health, in the medical world, right?
Aydin: Yes. A good portion of my group actually works on medical related problems, so we are actually building tiny chips that can actually go to through veins to the heart, they can do wireless pacing, they’re working with Texas Heart on that problem. We have tested on big animals, and we’re getting a lot of interest in that. There are problems for cancer detection. There is a certain type of cancer in the brain; basically, you remove the cancer and the regrowth is so unpredictable. It can regrow in two weeks and kill the patient, or nothing happens until 6 months and then it regrows and then kills the patient. So, what we do here is after removing the tumor we are injecting these chips in the brain, so when regrowth of a tumor happens, it will generate an alarm so we will know actually when exactly this regrowth happens so a patient can go to a hospital and quickly remove the new tumor.
Russ: So impressive. You must enjoy what you do.
Aydin: I love what I do, yes. And we have a lot of good students; they are actually the ones that do everything. I’m not actually doing anything. They’re building the sensors and they are doing a great, great job.
Russ: Well, Aydin I really appreciate you sharing your story with us. It’s really cool.
Aydin: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Dr. Aydin Babakhani, electrical engineering professor at Rice University. And this is The EnergyMakers Show.
brought to you by