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Lasers, Circuit Boards, and a $30 Gizmo: Innovative Solutions to the Methane Problem

By Ben Ratner

Source: MIssy Schmidt/Flickr

Source: MIssy Schmidt/Flickr

The technologies we see today didn’t all start out in the forms we’re used to. The phones we carry in our pockets used to weigh pounds, not ounces. Engineers developed hundreds of designs for wind turbines before landing on the three-blade design commonly seen in the field.

Fast forward and now we’re looking at a drunk-driver-and-alcohol sensor that was converted into a methane leak detector. And a sensor purchased off the web for less than $30 that was transformed into a monitor that fights off greenhouse gases.

I was excited to see the diversity of technologies such as these moving forward in the Methane Detectors Challenge.

Environmental Defense Fund’s initiative with seven oil and natural gas companies—including Shell and Anadarko Petroleum Company, the latest two to join—seeks to catalyze a new generation of technology for finding methane leaks in the oil and gas sector – a powerful contributor to climate change.

We each went into this challenge with a clear goal and a puzzle to solve – to identify the equivalent of a carbon monoxide detector for methane that could provide continuous detection of methane leaks.

It was a business puzzle as well: The innovations have to eventually come in at a price point of $1,000 or less.

Our initial call brought in 20 proposed designs from across the globe. In the end, our team – in collaboration with the energy companies and expert advisers – chose five innovations to move forward in the Challenge.

Submissions came from a range of sources, including universities, startups and established companies from across the United States as well as from Sweden and China – each with rich technical backgrounds.

The innovations moving forward to the first round of testing are:

  • RAE Systems, a division of Fortune 100 company Honeywell and SenseAir, a Swedish sensor designer, are adapting a handheld alcohol sensor – used in vehicles to detect high alcohol levels in drivers – and sampling system for very low level methane leak and hydrocarbon detection.
  • A research group at University of Colorado Boulder is devising a sensor network on a single circuit board, using low-cost, commercially available sensors.
  • A team from Oakland University and Michigan State University is creating a prototype electrochemical sensor solution with a target cost of $30 per sensor, building on mine safety applications.
  • An established firm from China, Dalian Actech, has teamed up with Foller & Associates of San Francisco on an infrared laser-based methane detection system developed to sense natural gas in the Chinese coal industry.
  • Quanta3, a scientific and engineering firm from Longmont, Colo., is enhancing its methane-specific tunable diode laser system to provide a complete, low-cost sensor package that does not require direct contact for detection.

Later this month, the innovators will bring their technologies to San Antonio, Texas, for the first round of testing at Southwest Research Institute’s facilities. The most successful innovations may advance to a second phase of more intensive laboratory and field testing, on tap for next year, and industry pilot purchases and deployments to follow.

The breadth and ingenuity of solutions on display leaves me hopeful that we’ll see one or more technologies out for pilot deployments with our industry partners next year. They can’t come too soon.

Fixing and repairing methane leaks is one of our most pressing climate challenges, and technologies like these will help us find and fix leaks with the speed we expect in the digital age. In addition, reducing leaks can help clear the air in surrounding communities, and boost the revenue of companies that act quickly to repair them by keeping more product in the pipeline.

Methane is a critical issue, and it’s promising to see the technology ingenuity of so many different companies on display, each finding an innovative way to achieve the same goal of addressing climate change.

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