A 22-mile-long plume of hydrocarbons floating 3,700 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico -- remnants of the BP oil spill -- was discovered by scientists using an monitoring device developed by a laboratory in West Deer.
The discovery announced last week came after nine days of exploration in the gulf in June by scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts with the help of James Maloney, a technician at Monitor Instruments Co. LLC in West Deer.
"It was an exciting experience. We were the only ship permitted to do the research in the 'exclusion zone,'" set up by the Coast Guard to keep other ships out of the oil spill, said Maloney, who lived aboard the ship during the scientific cruise and helped operate the equipment.
At Monitor Instruments Company in West Deer, showing the company's TETHYS cycloidal mass spectrometer, are (from left) president Anthony Duryea, software specialist Al Celo, hardware specialist Skip Young and James Maloney who served as the company's point man in the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Joe Appel | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The 24- by 10-inch device, developed at the West Deer lab, can detect very small quantities of oil and other chemical compounds in saltwater. In the gulf, the Tethered Yearlong Spectrometer was placed inside an unmanned underwater vehicle, which was controlled by instrumentation aboard a ship. The device provided rapid and comprehensive analysis of the underwater plume, said Anthony Duryea, CEO of Monitor Instruments.
The underwater vehicle, submerged 3,700 feet below the surface a few miles from the gulf gusher, found the plume on the first day it was in the water, said Richard Camilli, an associate scientist at Woods Hole and chief scientist on the gulf oil spill detection project.
"It (called Tethys) was the guidance system that was being used to detect the spill," Camilli said. The spectrometer communicated to the underwater vehicle where it found the hydrocarbons floating in the water, and crisscrossed the plume, he said.
While one spectrometer was relaying data to scientists aboard the ship, another Monitor Instruments' spectrometer was being towed by the ship and directed to move like a "yo-yo," through the plume of hydrocarbons to supply scientists with data on the plume's thickness -- from top to bottom, Camilli said.
Testing on the hydrocarbon plume in the gulf was conducted between June 19 and 28 from a vessel owned by the National Science Foundation.
The software and instrumentation for the patented monitoring device has been in development at Monitor Instruments since 1994, Duryea said. Over the years, the instrument has been reduced in size to fit into an underwater vehicle, he said.
Its application for underwater usage has been in development since 2005, Duryea said. Through a grant from the National Ocean Partnership Program, he said, the pressure vessel and fluid inlet system for the spectrometer and the overall use for underwater applications were developed by the Woods Hole organization by scientist Camilli.
It's not the first time that Monitor Instruments' spectrometer has been used to discover oil leaks, Duryea said.
It was first used underwater in the Gulf of Mexico in early 2006 to check on oil leaks following Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, Camilli said. It was used on a manned submarine, about eight miles from where the BP oil spill occurred, he said.
The device also has been used along the coast of California from San Diego to San Francisco to check for underwater hydrocarbon seepage, Duryea said. It was used again in 2007 in the Gulf of Mexico to detect underwater oil leakage.
While the federal grant that funded the six-year partnership between Woods Hole and Monitor Instruments has expired this year, it "was the spark that allowed us to bring it all together," Camilli said.
"That's (partnership) proven to be extremely successful. In this case, it helped in a national emergency," he said.
Closer to home, Duryea said he would like to see the spectrometer used by companies to determine whether the hydro-fracturing of Marcellus shale natural gas formations has an impact on underground water formations.
Some property owners have claimed that the natural gas fracturing has resulted in pollution of their water wells and damage to springs.