Quantum Sensing System for Pipeline Leak Detection

The Quantum Sensing System is being co-developed by the University of Oklahoma, Louisiana State University, as well as Oak Ridge National Laboratory, with funding from the U.S. Fossil Energy Office, and the Department of Energy (DOE).

By Editorial Team

A Day in the Life
Pooser attended New York University from 1998 to 2001, graduating with a B.S. in Physics before he moved on to grad school at the University of Virginia, where he completed a PhD in Engineering Physics. “At the time I was not sure if I wanted to do Engineering or Physics, so I did both,” Pooser reflected. “Quantum optics was my focus, as related to quantum physics. I completed my post-doctrine at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), working with the laser cooling and trapping group that handled quantum sensing, quantum simulation, physics research with atomic systems, and the like.”

Quantum optics is a branch of atomic, molecular, and optical physics dealing with the way in which individual quanta of light, known as photons, interact with atoms and molecules. 

After his post-doctrine, Pooser joined the team at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in 2009, where he rose through the ranks to become a Distinguished Research Scientist. There are eight people on Pooser’s team that collaborate under the Quantum Information Science section of the organization. “My group’s job is to try to translate the basic science of quantum mechanics and quantum information into practical, usable things that actually affect people’s lives,” he said. The quantum light technology the group developed has the potential to be used in many applications, from atomic force microscopes, to leak detectors for oil and gas pipelines.

Conventional Sensing Systems

In classical pipeline architecture, distributed, fiber-based acoustic sensors are used. The sensors place light into fibers that have gratings in them that reflect and transmit light. As they vibrate, it changes the amount of light that is reflected and transmitted throughout the fiber so that one can detect the effect of vibration in a distributed manner across the whole fiber. You can also detect phase shifts, optical time domain reflectometry, transmission measurements, etc. There is another category of sensors for above ground leak detection that rely on spectroscopy used for detecting gas leaks. “There are harsh environment applications such as oil wells that many sensors are not well-suited for,” commented Pooser. As these traditional methods rely on traditional light, the feedback they provide is limited.

Figure 1

Quantum light, by comparison, is able to detect leakage several fractions smaller than light seen by the human eye. “If you are above ground, it is relatively easy to detect an oil leak to some extent, as you can visually inspect. If it turns out that it is gas leak, which we know can occur if referencing some famous gas leaks that went unnoticed, it can be catastrophic,” said Pooser. “If methane is leaking, I may see a giant black plume on my leak detection camera, but it is transparent to me my eyes, so I cannot detect it by just inspecting by eye above ground.

You can use laser light to conduct spectroscopy on the emission to determine what the gas is.” Quantum versions of these detectors operate at very low light levels, relying on scattered light to come back to determine if a gas is present, based on the spectrum of light feedback. Quantum light makes this possible.

Benefits of Quantum Sensing vs. Conventional Methods

Over the years, Pooser and his team analyzed a number of sensors, including the fiber-based and gas sensors to determine their operational detection limits. “When a sensor gets close to what we call the standard quantum limit, it means that the detector has no way to improve its signal to noise ratio further,” said Pooser. “For example, you have a laser and you are shining it into a fiber, and there is a noise associated with the light in the laser itself that is going to add itself to your signal. There is a signal to noise ratio in all sensors and removing all unassociated noise sources is generally a hard thing to do. Imagine, however, that you can get rid of all the other noise sources by updating the light itself that is being used in the readout. The least noisy possible light that can be used to read sensors comes from quantum light sources.”

For 12 years, Pooser demonstrated that quantum can be used as a dropin replacement for the classical light in many sensors. “Plasmonic, biochemical sensors — which are probably one of the most ubiquitous sensors right now in biology research labs — can utilize this technology.” Ultimately, quantum sensing, which uses two beams of light to cancel noise, results in 60% error reduction in some of these sensing configurations. The result enables higher contrast imaging and detection of lower concentrations of particles than is possible with conventional sensors. “It is a fairly simple concept; if you can only detect a leak of a certain size within a certain timeframe, given your noise constraints, by reducing the noise constraints, you can find smaller leaks within the same timeframe,” he said. This is ideal for implementation in leak detectors and sniffers as lasers have extremely high sensitivity to the spectroscopy of gas leaks. The value to companies is detecting leaks faster and more efficiently.

The Future of the Technology

Pooser and his team have already held meetings with several oil and gas majors, who have expressed interest in this new quantum sensing technology. “Conceptually it has been very well received, and as we are a national lab, our hope is to transition such ideas out into the industries. We can now demonstrate a prototype, and the hope is that that a large oil and gas company we have contact with would want to build one and sell one for themselves,” Pooser expressed. “There are still plenty of hurdles to go through before this technology is applied to a real product out there in the world. The interest in quantum information science in there, and companies are very excited about seeing what their company can do with quantum light in the future,” he continued.

Figure 2

ORNL already has a deep history of licensing out technologies to companies in the cybersecurity and power industry. “People want to protect the security of the grid, so there is a lot of precedent for us to transition technology to the oil and gas industry.” 

It ORNL’s ambition to fund research on sustainable oil and gas exploration, carbon capture, and other activities to support the fossil industry to ensure that the earth’s resources are used in the best way possible. Pooser suspects the quantum sensing system will be available in the marketplace, optimistically, in the next five years. “I do not see any reason why classical fi ber optic sensors and accelerometers would stop being used as they are probably going to be cheaper. Quantum sensors will be placed in critical places where you expect you have the highest risk. The higher the risk, the more complex and sophisticated the sensor should be,” said Pooser.

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