How Time-Domain Spectroscopy is Impacting the Oil Industry


Here, we detail the role time-domain spectroscopy is playing in the oil industry.

Article Highlights

  • Petroleum, plant, animal-based, and synthetic oils are crucial for modern life, serving as primary energy sources and essential components in various products like plastics, lubricants, and cosmetics.
  • Discovery or possession of petroleum reserves can lead to significant economic growth and job creation, exemplified by the boom in Williston, North Dakota, due to the Bakken oil fields.
  • Spectroscopy, particularly time-domain spectroscopy (TDS), plays a vital role in the petroleum industry, providing insights into oil composition and properties, aiding in efficient categorization and analysis.
  • THz-TDS, combined with machine learning, improve oil characterization, aiding in understanding processes like oxidation in diesel fuel and enhancing oil industry operations.

Petroleum-, plant- and animal-based, and synthetic oils are currently essential for modern life. Petroleum-based oils remains one of the most important natural resources for energy and chemical products used in human civilization. Its significance stems from not only being a primary driver of the economy and as a primary fuel source, but it is also used in various everyday products, such as plastics, solvents, lubricants, cosmetics, synthetic rubber, and asphalt for road and housing construction (1). Petroleum-based oils are used for fuel and infrastructure-related projects, and plant- and animal-based oils are used in cooking and various food products (2,3). Economies worldwide heavily rely on various hydrocarbon oils from different sources.

Countries that have or discover petroleum-based oil reserves in their territory stumble on a figurative gold mine. Oil production is a huge economic boom to the country that engages in this economic activity, and it is a massive job creator, resulting in many workers and their families flocking to regions where the oil reserve exists in search of economic opportunities.

Oil pumps. | Image Credit: © Ded Pixto -

Oil pumps. | Image Credit: © Ded Pixto -

This phenomenon is encapsulated perfectly when we look at the rapid expansion of the town of Williston in North Dakota. Located in Williams County, Williston was a small, rural town in northwest North Dakota. However, the discovery of significant oil reserves in the Bakken Formation, a vast geological formation in North Dakota, Montana, and Saskatchewan, has resulted in a huge oil fracking boom (4). Over the past decade, millions of barrels have been pumped from the Bakken oil fields, resulting in Williston’s population increasing dramatically, doubling over that time period (4).

Bakken Formation Oil Derricks Pumps | Image Credit: © Nathan -

Bakken Formation Oil Derricks Pumps | Image Credit: © Nathan -

Spectroscopy plays a critical role in the petroleum oil industry by providing valuable insights into the composition and properties of crude oil and its derived products. Various spectroscopic techniques, such as infrared (IR), nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), and mass spectrometry (MS), are employed for different purposes throughout the oil production process.

In this article, we examine how spectroscopy has contributed to the petroleum-based oil industry, focusing primarily on time-domain spectroscopy.

What is Time-Domain Spectroscopy?

Time-domain spectroscopy (TDS) is a technique often used in the oil industry to categorize oil products efficiently (5). Instead of examining the frequency components of a signal, as in traditional frequency-domain spectroscopy, TDS focuses on the behavior of signals in the time domain.

In time-domain spectroscopy, a short-duration pulse of electromagnetic radiation, such as a laser pulse or a microwave pulse, is sent into an oil sample. The interaction between the pulse and the sample provides information about the sample's properties, such as its composition, structure, dynamics, and response to external stimuli. By analyzing the time-dependent characteristics of the signal after it interacts with the sample, scientists and researchers can extract valuable information about the sample's properties. Because the quality of crude oil can differ significantly because of its geological origin, time-domain spectroscopy helps analysts characterize oils based on their composition and properties (5).

Time-domain spectroscopy also improves on previous methods that were used to characterize oil shale. For example, mass spectrometry and fluorescence spectroscopy were used for this purpose (5). However, analysts noted several limitations with these techniques. Yang and his team noted that both techniques have a long characterization time and complicated sample preparation is often required, which makes both techniques rather inefficient for this purpose (5). As a result, they demonstrated that by combining terahertz with time-domain spectroscopy (THz-TDS) with machine learning analysis of the spectra, characterizing oil shale can remain highly accurate while reducing analysis time (5).

Terahertz time-domain spectroscopy (THz-TDS) was also used by Watson and others to characterize diesel fuel (6). In their study, they attempted to use THz-TDS to try to understand the oxidation process of oil, which is the primary process that breaks down the molecules in oil and shortens its life (6). Because many people use automobiles that are gas-powered, it is important for them to understand how oxidation could impact their engine. Their study ultimately proved that THz-TDS could differentiate between the engine oil differences based on their oxidation times, essentially showing what oil is in peak shape and what oil is of lesser quality or in the process of breaking down (6).

The advancements of THz-TDS have allowed the oil industry to flourish in places like North Dakota. Advancements in drilling technology made large-scale extraction economically feasible, and the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has allowed access to previously inaccessible oil reserves.


(1) Spectroscopy Staff, Advancements in THz Spectroscopy Revolutionize Oil Shale Analysis and Processing. Spectroscopy. Available at: (accessed 2024-05-01).

(2) Karaliunas, M.; Nasser, K. E.; Urbanowicz, A.; et al. Non-destructive Inspection of Food and Technical Oils by Terahertz Spectroscopy. Sci. Rep. 2018, 8, 18025. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-36151-3

(3) Dinovitser, A.; Valchev, D. G.; Abbott, D. Terahertz Time-Domain Spectroscopy of Edible Oils. R. Soc. Open Sci. 2017, 4 (6), 170275. DOI: 10.1098/rsos.170275

(4) Holder, S. The Other Side of the North Dakota Oil Boom: Evictions. Bloomberg. Available at: (accessed 2024-05-01).

(5) Yang, F.; Ma, H.; Huang, H.; Li, D. Efficient Identification of Crude Oil via Combined Terahertz Time-Domain Spectroscopy and Machine Learning. Photonics 2024, 11 (2), 155. DOI: 10.3390/photonics11020155

(6) Abdul-Munaim, A. M.; Ornik, J.; Koch, M.; Watson, D. G. Terahertz Time Domain Spectroscopy to Detect Different Oxidation Levels of Diesel Engine Oil. Lubricants 2019, 7 (2), 18. DOI: 10.3390/lubricants7020018

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