LightTouch was developed by Shell Global Solutions working in co-operation with scientists from the Optics Applications Group at the University of Glasgow. It uses a specially-adapted vehicle fitted with what is probably the world's most sensitive ethane gas sensor.
The vehicle also uses equipment that measures wind speed and direction, and a wireless local area network to download data in real time to computers, so that information can be analyzed while the survey is under way. Sources of hydrocarbons can be detected at a range of several kilometers from the vehicle.
Initial estimates show that the cost of a LightTouch is only about 10 percent of those of a seismic survey over a similar area. In addition, the results are available immediately so exploration resources can be focused on areas where hydrocarbons are present.
Ethane gas is a good indicator of oil and gas reserves because it is formed through the cracking of larger hydrocarbon molecules. Unlike methane, it is not produced by biological decay, and the atmospheric background concentration is a thousand times lower, meaning that seepages of ethane show up far more clearly.
Bill Hirst, Principal Scientist of Measurement and Instrumentation at Shell Global Solutions, said: "We see this technology as a fast and inexpensive way of screening large areas for oil and gas, and you get the results the same day".
"It allows you to make decisions more quickly and identify where money would best be invested in further exploration. We also expect LightTouch to provide useful additional input to ranking prospects for drilling."
LightTouch could also lead to important developments in the detection of cancer. Scientists at the University of Glasgow have begun a two-year research program to test whether it can identify the early stages of lung cancer in which ethane is expelled in the patient's breath. Ethane and other hydrocarbons are produced when in response to cancer, free radicals within the body break down cell membranes.
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