Surging national focus among both industry leaders and government officials on the problem of methane emissions has put a sudden new premium on tools and technologies to help identify the leaks and other sources where the potent, heat-trapping greenhouse gas is escaping into the atmosphere. The good news is that some of the planet’s best innovators are rising to the challenge.
Two major initiatives are helping uncover simpler, faster solutions: The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)’s Methane Observation Networks with Innovative Technology to Obtain Reductions Program grants (MONITOR for short), and the Methane Detectors Challenge, led by EDF and industry partners.
Fixing and repairing methane leaks is one of our most pressing climate challenges – and also one of our biggest opportunities. Improvements in methane detection technology will help the oil & gas sector 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.
Last December, ARPA-E announced $30 million in awards to 11 methane detection innovators, from blue chips like IBM and General Electric (GE), to specialized firms like Rebellion Photonics and Physical Sciences Inc. Grants and assistance from ARPA-E’s MONITOR program will help these companies to accelerate development of early-stage methane detection and quantification technologies for use across the oil & gas supply chain. Here are a few of the funded projects:
- GE’s project focuses on a novel hollow optical fiber that allows methane to pass through it that can detect methane along its length, allowing for significant flexibility in how it is deployed;
- Duke University is developing a sensor that can distinguish between methane from different sources, such as agriculture and oil and gas fields, as well as detect other hazardous compounds such as benzene; and
- Rebellion Photonics is developing a low-cost and portable miniaturized detection system that will incorporate cloud-based data processing that can stream results to mobile devices, allowing for faster notification of leaks.
These investments are a powerful example of government collaborating with the private sector, filling a critical funding gap for core R&D. Across the economy, we’ve seen huge advances and cost reductions in both sensing technology and big data analytics to create actionable intelligence for business of all kinds. The aim now is to unleash that same creative process to reduce climate-damaging methane leakage and product waste.
Methane Detectors Challenge
In parallel with ARPA-E, the Methane Detectors Challenge (MDC), run jointly by EDF and select industry leaders and launched in April 2014, is marching on through technology testing.
With the Methane Detectors Challenge, we dared developers and engineers to design cutting-edge, cost-effective methane monitors that could help the oil & gas industry more quickly detect and ultimately reduce methane emissions. Combined with MONITOR, our project packs a one-two punch of innovation for methane detection, propelling technologies forward at different stages of development.
Through the proposal process and our first round of independent testing, we’ve put five technologies through their paces in a laboratory setting. Four groups’ sensors – Dalian Actech, Honeywell/SenseAir, Quanta3 and University of Colorado – rose to the surface in terms of accuracy, cost considerations and overall promise. The four groups have been invited to a second round of largely outdoor field testing focused on more complete detection systems.
The best performers that meet required specifications are expected to continue on to industry pilots slated for late 2015.
Two Strategies, One Goal
MONITOR and MDC are complementary initiatives. MDC is speeding methane detection technologies that are close to “prime time” today, while galvanizing industry demand for new technologies and monitoring strategies. MONITOR makes longer-term seed investments and provides technical and market support for the breakthroughs of tomorrow. MDC takes a laser focus on oil & gas well pads and compressors, while MONITOR casts the net more widely including pipelines and large area monitoring.
We don’t yet know which of the technologies across the programs will ultimately be transformative, but it’s a strong and diverse field, and this market has room and need for a range of successful approaches. Active participation of partners like Shell on the MDC signals industry demand for the next generation of technology to find and fix methane leaks quickly and cost-effectively.
With two bold efforts to get technologies ready for the market – and this first round of testing showing positive results –we’re headed for game-changing tools to help control this climate super-pollutant.