The European Space Agency (ESA) is shipping crude oil into space. This may seem like a poor market strategy, but there's method behind this petroleum madness. The space agency is sending a set of small, highly-pressurized containers of crude oil into orbit as part of an experiment aimed at learning how oil behaves in deep underground reservoirs.
Crude oil seems like a simple resource; it's black, runny, and comes out of the ground. However, as oil companies drill deeper and deeper in search of new deposits, they face a whole new environment where oil doesn't act like it's supposed to and flows in all sorts of strange ways. The ESA experiment is designed to study this flow by removing one of the major factors; gravity.
"The experiment is intended to sharpen our understanding of deep crude oil reservoirs, up to 7 to 8 km (4.3 to 5 mi) underground," says Antonio Verga, who is overseeing the project for ESA. "The combination of the crushing pressure and temperature gradient as you go further down is thought to create a ‘diffusion’ effect: petroleum compounds move based on temperature, defying gravity. Over geological timescales, heavier deposits end up rising, while lighter ones sink.The aim is to quantify this effect in weightlessness, helping to guide future decisions on oil exploration."
The experiment is called "Soret Coefficient in Crude Oil." It was built by QinetiQ Space in Belgium, and is operated as a partnership between ESA, China’s National Space Science Center, France’s Total oil company and China’s PetroChina oil company.
It consists of six cylinders set in a four liter (244 cu/in) cube weighing 8.5 kg (18.7 lb). Each cylinder contains one milliliter of crude oil pressurized to 400 atmospheres. According to the space agency, this one of the highest pressures ever applied to an item sent into space. It's similar to experiments previously flown on the Russian Foton missions, put this one will operate at much higher pressures.
“Placed into a ‘hypercritical’ state by the high pressure, the crude oil is contained inside small titanium cylinders with a stainless steel internal valve mechanism,” says Verga. “One end of the cylinder is warmed while the other end is cooled. When the time comes for the mission to return, a divider will come across to prevent the migrated liquid being mixed again during reentry.”
The experiment underwent extensive testing at ESA’s Technical Centre, ESTEC, in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, where it was subjected to temperatures and vibrations similar to those encountered on liftoff and in orbital flight., as well stresses equal to 2.5 times the operating pressure of the cylinders. Meanwhile, a protoflight model was sent to Beijing for electromagnetic compatibility testing and ensure that the experiment module fits in the spacecraft.
ESA says that the experiment module will be launched late next year, along with 19 other experiments, aboard China’s SJ-10 Shi Jian spacecraft from the Jiuquan launch site in the Gobi desert. The mission will last two-weeks before landing in Sichuan province. This will be ESA’s first experiment to fly on a Chinese space mission.