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Bivalves alert us to oil pollution: Mussel power to protect the environment

23 April 2010 Research Council of Norway, The

The biological sciences are edging their way into many different areas of society – including the petroleum industry. Norwegian company Biota Guard is one enterprise whose activities utilise biological processes.

Petroleum activities on the Norwegian continental shelf can pose a major threat to the environment unless operators keep vigilant watch for any accidental emissions. The right people must be notified immediately so they can take decisive action to contain any contamination.

Biota Guard AS is working to ensure that monitoring is a high-quality, efficient process. But rather than develop robots and sensors to monitor for marine discharges from offshore petroleum platforms, the company has focused on a “biological instrument” that senses environmental conditions better than anything else – the common blue mussel.

Signs of stress in mussels

Biota Guard’s system monitors the life signs of individual mussels. These bivalves will close incrementally when exposed to pollutants or when experiencing physical stress due to other threats. The mussel’s heart rate is also affected by its immediate surroundings, according to Eirik Sønneland, Project Manager at Biota Guard.

The company is working on linking its mussel-based monitoring system to integrated operations systems in order to incorporate environmental monitoring into the overall management of a petroleum field. Biota Guard’s system provides real-time information about potential contamination, even on a small scale.

Developed with the environment in mind

Biota Guard was founded in 2006 by the International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS) and Procom Venture. IRIS is a main partner in the project. Funding from the PETROMAKS programme at the Research Council of Norway has been essential to be able to carry out their project.

A primary objective of the PETROMAKS programme is to promote the environmentally sound development of petroleum activities on the Norwegian continental shelf. The authorities have set stringent zero-emissions requirements on petroleum activities in the Arctic region due to its important fisheries resources and the vulnerability of the environment there to external factors.

More useful species in the Arctic

Biota Guard collaborates closely with leading R&D groups and technology subcontractors.

A separate project – Biota Guard Arctic – has been established to refine the system for use in the Arctic and at depths down to 500 metres. The project will also identify additional species that are suitable for use as biosensors, as well as physical and chemical sensors for carrying out key tasks in the system. Biota Guard hopes to enter into its first commercial contract for delivery in the course of 2010.

The project also involves collaboration with Russian researchers and will fund a doctoral student in Canada. According to Mr Sønneland, this kind of international cooperation will prove very productive for both Biota Guard and the participating industry players.

Attached files

  • Mussel close-up

  • Biota Guard (Photo: Vidar Skålevik)

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