Tiny inexpensive gravimeter could be a “game-changer”

A team of researchers from the University of Glasgow have developed a compact device that measures tiny gravity fluctuations, and could be used to monitor volcanoes or search for oil, BBC news reported.

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The design of the device, which is much smaller and less expensive than existing gravimeters, is based on accelerometers found in smartphones. Commercial gravimeters currently on the market cost around £70,000-plus, which are largely the preserve of wealthy oil companies. The University of Glasgow team’s design, which is around the size of a postage stamp, could be available in a few years for only hundreds, the BBC report said.

Unlike other similar machines, the new compact gravimeter is based on a “microelectromechanical system” similar to that used in smartphone accelerometer.

“The difference between the mobile phone accelerometers and our device is that our springs are very, very thin – about 10 times thinner than a human hair,” Richard Middlemiss, the PhD student who made the new instrument, was quoted as saying. “That means that whereas in a mobile phone, it’ll only be activated by something as big as the Earth – our sensor is… almost at the point where you could detect the gravitational pull of a human when you’re standing next to them.”

In the journal, Nature, the teams reported that their contraption can detect even smaller gravity changes – such as those that would be caused by a tunnel less than 1m across, buried 2m underground. This could help explore for oil and gas.

Why do we get gravitational changes?

Tidal forces, caused by the interacting pull of the Sun and Moon, also slightly squash the Earth’s diameter. For this reason, spots on the earth’s crust could go up and down by about 40cm over the course of 12-13 hours.

“That means that we get a change in gravitational acceleration – so that’s what we’ve been able to measure,” Middlemiss said.

The research team has a patent pending on its design.

So what can a compact gravimeter be used for?

Gravimeters can be used for petroleum and mineral prospectingseismologygeodesygeophysical surveys and other geophysical research, and for metrology.

Multiple devices could be scattered around volcanoes or mounted on drones to conduct subterranean survey, the team suggested. They could even help civil engineers locate pipes under roads, Mr Middlemiss said, to save them digging in the wrong places.

Is this a ‘game-changer’?

According the BBC report, Prof Hazel Rymer, a vulcanologist at the Open University, greeted the Glasgow gadget with huge enthusiasm.

“It is just so exciting,” she was reported as saying. “It’s an absolute game-changer.”

She went on: “they’ve now got a sensor that is sensitive enough to measure the types of gravity changes that I’m interested in – and anybody else that is using gravity meters.”

Source: BBC News

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