Seawater capacitance – a promising proxy for mapping and characterizing drifting hydrocarbon plumes in the deep ocean
Hydrocarbons released into the deep ocean are an inevitable consequence of natural seep, seafloor drilling, and leaking wellhead-to-collection-point pipelines. The Macondo 252 (Deepwater Horizon) well blowout of 2010 was even larger than the Ixtoc event in the Gulf of Campeche in 1979. History suggests it will not be the last accidental release, as deepwater drilling expands to meet an ever-growing demand. For those who must respond to this kind of disaster, the first line of action should be to know what is going on. This includes knowing where an oil plume is at any given time, where and how fast it is moving, and how it is evolving or degrading. We have experimented in the laboratory with induced polarization as a method to track hydrocarbons in the seawater column and find that finely dispersed oil in seawater gives rise to a large distributed capacitance. From previous sea trials, we infer this could potentially be used to both map and characterize oil plumes, down to a ratio of less than 0.001 oil-to-seawater, drifting and evolving in the deep ocean. A side benefit demonstrated in some earlier sea trials is that this same approach in modified form can also map certain heavy placer minerals, as well as communication cables, pipelines, and wrecks buried beneath the seafloor.