All Steamed Up: Breakthrough in spectrometry promises significant applications in the oilsands


Thanks to advances in technology, the majority of oilsands production now comes from in situ thermal projects using steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), or cyclic steam stimulation. At the heart of most operations is the once through steam generator, a large industrial boiler that functions best when it is producing 80 per cent steam.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to know how close the boiler is to producing 80 per cent steam. “There is no way of testing the percentage in real time, so it is difficult to know what adjustments need to be made to a boiler to optimize output,” says Yonathan Dattner, the president of Luxmux.

REAL-TIME MEASUREMENT  Luxmux’s Broad Spectrum Tunable Superluminescent
Diode (BeST-SLED) is the first miniature integrated spectrometer with a light source. The high optical throughput, polarization maintaining fibre coupled solution is measuring steam content in steam generators used in bitumen production. (PHOTO: LUXMUX)

The steam can be tested in a gas spectrometer, but the devices are large, expensive, fussy to operate and normally situated far from bitumen production facilities. What was needed was a robust spectrometer that could be installed on site.

Which is exactly what Luxmux has built. It recently launched the silicon nanophotonic Fourier transform near-infrared spectrometer-on-a-chip. “The core technology is the silicon photonics chip,” says Dattner. “We also developed a small, super bioluminescent light source. It is very innovative. It has been miniaturized so that it can be hand-held.”

The invention of the chip technology—which has the potential to significantly alter everything from the detection of skin cancer to the composition of the food you eat—has had a long and convoluted path. Dattner, a young Israeli scientist, came to Canada in the mid-2000s to study electrical engineering at the University of Calgary and
 the University of British Columbia. He revelled in such esoteric disciplines as nanophotonics (the study of the behaviour of light on the nanometer scale), surface plasmon polaritons (light waves that travel along the metal-air interface) and Fourier transformations (which decompose a signal into the frequencies that make it up).

The various disciplines can be combined to suit a wide variety of uses. “The technology was originally developed in the telecommunications sector to optimize the interconnection between fibre optics and chips,” says Dattner. He and fellow researchers realized that it could be customized to create a device that could measure the molecular content of virtually anything.

LASER ACCURATE  Luxmux’s optical distance sensor is incorporated into the head of glass tube variable area flow meters. It uses an invisible laser to send light pulses to the float and then picks up the reflected light to determine the float’s position inside the tube. (PHOTO: LUXMUX)

In 2011, Dattner helped found Luxmux, with the goal of miniaturizing spectrometers. “‘Lux’ is Latin for light, and ‘mux’ is shorthand for multiplexing,” he notes.

One of the original investors was AGAR Corporation, which has been supplying multi-phase flow meters to the oil and gas sector for the last 35 years. Along with other investors, the company raised $5 million, with the purpose of developing a silicon chip that could be used with fibre optic technology to create a hand-held spectrometer capable of measuring steam content. AGAR subsequently licensed the technology and worked with Dattner to develop the first application, the Broad Spectrum Tunable Superluminescent Diode (BeST-SLED) spectrometer.

While the device itself is not expensive, the task of installing it
 in a boiler pass (where the steam is produced; each SAGD boiler has four passes) costs approximately $80,000. Once installed, the spectrometer emits a light source spanning the near-infrared spectrum of 1250–
1750 nanometres. The light source travels down a fibre optic cable and contacts the steam–hot water mixture; subsequent electromagnetic wave emissions trace a return path along the fibre optic cable and are captured by the chip and analyzed to determine the steam/water ratio.

Luxmux, which won the Alberta Science and Technology Leadership Foundation award for Outstanding Science and Technology Start-Up
 in November for its one-of-a-kind device, anticipates the technology will find wider use. “We can also install at the pad sites; there are about 4,000,” he notes.

NEXT-GENERATION INSTRUMENTATION Luxmux’s optical distance sensor, in the top of the glass tube, electrically connects to a printed circuit board, enabling control of the laser, the sensor readout algorithm and the temperature control loop. (PHOTO: LUXMUX)

In addition to the oilsands, other parts of the oil and gas sector are intrigued by the spectrometer. “Pipeline companies are interested in the device as it can be designed to measure H2S [hydrogen sulfide], water vapour, and gas chromatography [GC] in many points 
of their transportation system,” says Dattner. “We call it GC on a stick.”

Although the oil and gas sector holds great promise, Luxmux is setting its sights much higher. Its chip technology is compliant with complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS), a technology for constructing integrated circuits. Luxmux has the potential to mass produce the chip for pennies a unit and incorporate it into a device like a smartphone.

“The ultimate goal is to use it in the consumer market, where you would be able to tell what was in a food product, or whether there was bacteria,” says Dattner. “The sky is the limit.”

Luxmux is hoping to make a big splash with its steam spectrometer when it formally launches the unit in early 2016. In the meantime, it is busy proving its efficiency and value in the field. Currently, Cenovus Energy is pilot testing the device at its Foster Creek project. “With real-time measuring, a boiler could be adjusted to produce
up to 86 per cent steam, which would greatly increase efficiency and lower GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions
per barrel of produced bitumen,”
 says Dattner.

By Gordon Cope


Yonathan Dattner, Luxmux, 
Tel: 403-400-2438
, Email: [email protected]


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