Airborne Ultra-Light Spectrometer for Environmental Application, or AUSEA, is one of Total's game-changing environmental innovations.
A new drone-mounted system which makes it possible to measure greenhouse gas emissions, estimate their path and trace them back to the source. The project is part of Total's strategy to reduce emissions from its operations.
The Group has already reduced methane emissions by 45% since 2010 — a performance among the industry's best. The intensity of methane emissions for oil and gas facilities in 2019 amounted to around 0.2% of the commercial gas Total produces, and the objective is for a reduction to below that. For gas facilities, the goal is to keep methane intensity below 0.1%.
Stephanie Want is a senior climate change advisor with the Group, "we are looking at the technologies of tomorrow," she explains, "So much of what we're working on with R&D teams is related to dealing with environmental issues and climate change. We're working on lots of projects and AUSEA is one we're very happy with as part of our larger roadmap on the detection and reduction of methane emissions."
The AUSEA project was born following a significant leak of methane on an offshore facility in 2012. "We really had to look at what we could do to pre-empt such events," explains Ludovic Donnat, one of Total's environmental modeling research engineers, "we didn't have an easy way of measuring emissions offshore. In the context of climate change we need better, more immediate, readings."
"Acting on that information allows us to shape internal policy and ultimately bring our emissions down," emphasizes Want, whose role is to coordinate Total's methane reduction strategy.
Innovative drone technology
AUSEA uses drone-mounted diode laser spectrometers to measure emissions of two of the main greenhouse gases; methane and carbon dioxide. The airborne system assesses outputs at very low thresholds. Similar technology is already being used in the field of meteorology.
The relatively low-cost device will allow proactive monitoring in real-time — once or twice a day. Right now, monitoring happens over a much broader time frame — weeks or even months. Boats or planes are sent to take measurements, which are not only costly and time-consuming, but the equipment is frequently at the mercy of the weather.
"To begin with the equipment we used weighed around 3 kilograms, we've managed to get down to about 1 kilogram and we're aiming to get under that," Donnat says. The light-weight drone was further equipped with AMULSE (Atmospheric Measurements Ultra-Light Spectrometer) a high-performance miniature and ultra-light sensor able to take the readings. "We have a fully working system in place — now it's time to streamline. In the ideal world, we're aiming for pilotless drones, but we need the equipment to be robust enough for that," he adds.
That is not to say the AUSEA project faced no challenges, Donnat is clear; "On the technical side, drones can vibrate and make readings less precise than experts might like. Another issue we faced was the wind blowing across the sensors, you actually need some wind to get readings." The team worked on the software and reworked analysis in the cases where there was not enough wind for a calculation.
"There is always also a cost factor we would like to reduce, but not to the detriment of quality. We are more than satisfied with the results we're getting from AUSEA so far," he says.
- For more on the subject: AUSEA, a Drone-Borne Sensor to Measure Greenhouse Gas Emissions Efficiently and in Real Time
In partnership with France's National Committee of Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Reims, the team had four years to improve on existing methods of gas analysis. The project reached the operational phase more than six months ahead of the deadline. "The whole process with our partners was relatively short and really efficient. The laboratory really went 'over and above' in terms of working on the challenges associated with the hardware. We got the real deal; software which analyzed our data, with real-life examples and experience in the test phase," Donnat says.
The first round of testing was conducted in Lacq in southwest France, with a sensor installed on a tethered balloon and simulated leaks of various concentrations of gas. Measurements were recorded every second and sent back in real-time to test early detection capability.
This testing was done on Total's TADI platform. "TADI is a unique tool in Europe to create controlled releases of gas, enabling us to test technologies on their ability to find the correct emission rate," explains Marie-France Bénassy, head of the group's research program on safety, environment and social issues. More than 25 technologies have been tested, from those in academic laboratories to others already available on the market. "AUSEA was the best solution available today to quantify emissions with the lowest levels of uncertainty."
A later part of the AUSEA test phase saw Total land two world-firsts by taking emissions readings with a drone around both flares and an oil rig.
The drone-mounted system has since been tested at various oil and gas sites; in the North Sea off the Netherlands, at a French refinery and at onshore oil and gas production platforms in Nigeria.
What did Total do with the information from the test phase? "We sent it back to our test sites and explained what we'd monitored. We are still very much in the start-up phase of the process, so it's disconnected from Group-based reporting on our environmental practices, but it's only a matter of time before we include AUSEA more broadly. Once we've actually got out there and monitored our sites in fully operational mode, we'll use this vital information for reporting more widely," Donnat adds.
"My role is to exchange with scientists, NGOs and other stakeholders — engaging in debates and issues both inside and outside the Group to make sure we are on the right track in terms of methane strategy. The information we get back from successful innovations like AUSEA increase efficiency, as well as being a building block we can use in terms of methane emission reduction," underlines Want.
The future of the technology
Wider transparency on methane emissions performance around Total's facilities builds confidence with external stakeholders.
Internally, it can help optimize methane emission reduction strategy; routine monitoring in real-time means teams can respond immediately if there are methane leaks on a site.
This is just the beginning of possible uses for this technology, it could lead to a host of future applications, as other industries adopt it.
Climate change is at the heart of Total strategic vision and its ambition to become "the responsible energy major." One of the ways to rise to that challenge, as proven by the AUSEA project, is to collaborate and innovate.