Grain-of-sand size sensors monitor remote oil reservoirs

Tiny wirelessly powered sensors no larger than a grain of sand are being developed to monitor conditions in underground oil deposits
Tiny wirelessly powered sensors no larger than a grain of sand are being developed to monitor conditions in underground oil deposits (Research & Development)

Miniaturization has been making significant inroads into sensors, but some research at UCLA could really advance the state of sensor technology. Aydin Babakhani, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCLA Samueli, has received $1.25 million in research funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to miniaturize powerful diagnostic sensor systems down to the size of a grain of sand.

The wirelessly powered sensors are used to monitor hydraulic fracturing processes, which is used to extract oil and gas from difficult-to-reach reservoirs. The microchip system also includes an antenna to transmit the information back to the surface, giving engineers above ground a more detailed picture of what’s happening in real time, and making the extraction process more cost effective. The tiny sensors would be carried into the wells along with “proppants,” which are small grains of sand, ceramics, or other materials that are used to keep the wells flowing.

Sensors, some sized as small a grain of sand, are being developed at the UCLA Integrated Sensors Lab, to monitor deep, unconventional oil wells.
Sensors, some sized as small a grain of sand, are being developed at the
UCLA Integrated Sensors Lab, to monitor deep, unconventional oil wells.

The sensors are the brainchild of Babakhani, who leads the UCLA Integrated Sensors Laboratory, which develops sensors and systems with applications in high-speed wireless technologies, radar, medical implants, and energy infrastructure monitoring. Babakhani’s laboratory has built a suite of millimeter-scale, battery-less, wirelessly powered sensors and actuators that include on-chip antennas, radios, sensing elements, and actuation units. These devices will be used in a broad spectrum of applications, from wirelessly powered pacemakers and medical implants, to infrastructure monitoring in harsh conditions.

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