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An open-water electrical geophysical tool for mapping sub-seafloor heavy placer minerals in 3D and migrating hydrocarbon plumes in 4D

September 19, 2011

A towed-streamer technology has been developed for mapping placer heavy minerals and dispersed hydrocarbon plumes in the open ocean. The approach uses induced polarization (IP), an electrical measurement that encompasses several different surface-reactive capacitive and electrochemical phenomena, and thus is ideally suited for mapping dispersed or disseminated targets. The application is operated at sea by towing active electrical geophysical streamers behind a ship; a wide area can be covered in three dimensions by folding tow-paths over each other in lawn-mower fashion. This technology has already been proven in laboratory and ocean settings to detect IP-reactive titanium- and rare-earth (REE) minerals such as ilmenite and monazite. By extension, minerals that weather and accumulate/concentrate by a similar mechanism, including gold, platinum, and diamonds, may be rapidly detected and mapped indirectly- even when dispersed and covered with thick, inert sediment. IP is also highly reactive to metal structures such as pipelines and cables. Currently, the only means for mapping an oil-spill plume is to park a large ship in the ocean and drop a sampling string over the side, requiring hours of time per sampling point. The samples must then be chemically analyzed, adding additional time and expense. We believe that an extension of the marine IP technology could also apply to rapidly mapping both seafloor- blanket and disseminated hydrocarbon plumes in the open ocean, as hydrocarbon droplets in conductive seawater are topologically equivalent to a metal-plates-and-dielectric capacitor. Because the effective capacitance would be frequency-dependent on droplet size, the approach we advocate holds the potential to not only map, but also to characterize the evolution and degradation of such a plume over time. In areas where offshore oil field development has been practiced for extended periods, making IP measurements from a towed streamer may be useful for locating buried - nd exposed pipelines, as well as pipeline leaks. We believe this technique will be a more cost-effective method than drop-sampling to map and monitor hydrocarbon plumes in open ocean settings. A marine induced polarization system was used successfully to map a 15 km × 45 km swath of the ocean floor off eastern South Africa with 3-meter sampling along 200-meter-separated profiles. The survey detected titanium-bearing sands up to 15 meters below the seafloor. From preliminary laboratory work it is apparent that we can extend this technology to monitor significant environmental problems including anthropogenic and industrial waste washed into sensitive estuaries and sounds during storm-water runoff episodes, and also to map and characterize dispersed oil plumes in the seawater column in three dimensions, as well as movement and dispersal of both over time.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2011
Title An open-water electrical geophysical tool for mapping sub-seafloor heavy placer minerals in 3D and migrating hydrocarbon plumes in 4D
Authors Jefferey C. Wynn, Scott Urquhart, Mike Williamson, John B. Fleming
Publication Type Conference Paper
Publication Subtype Conference Paper
Index ID 70156382
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Volcano Science Center