Two Bold Efforts to Speed Methane Detection Technology to Market

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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.

ARPA-E’s MONITOR

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

  • University of Colorado Boulder's integrated circuit board solution outfitted with a network of low-cost, commercially available sensors
  • Quanta3's Dirk Richter preparing equipment for installation
  • Dalian Actech's infrared laser-based methane detection system
  • RAE Systems/SenseAir's "alco-lock"

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.

Further reading:

Lasers, circuit boards and a $30 sensor: innovative solutions to the methane problem

This post originally appeared on EDF Voices.

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.

innovation

(Missy Schmidt/Flickr)

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.

Read more

Changing the Methane Numbers Game

Adding to the drumbeat for action on the supercharged climate pollutant methane, Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” series recently spotlighted methane emissions leaking from America’s oil and natural gas infrastructure.

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One theme of the May 19 episode hinged on a numbers question: Just how much methane is getting out? This question, a common one in the methane arena, refers to the national methane leakage rate for the entire oil and gas supply chain.

Various numbers, as low as 1 percent, were suggested for the national average with 4 percent, 11 percent and even 17 percent reported by scientific studies in some oil-and-gas producing regions. The problem is, it’s the wrong question.

We should stop fixating the debate on just how bad the problem is, when we know there is a problem and we can address it with confidence today.

Read more

Methane Emissions Are Risky Business

benI came to Environmental Defense Fund from the management consulting world, and was fortunate to bring a couple of lessons with me. A simple one is that successful companies keep a finger on the pulse of the returns and risks in their industry and core businesses. The oil and gas industry has a growing risk on its hands, and that risk is methane emissions.

Study after scientific study has shown that methane emissions from oil and gas are a leading source of that powerful greenhouse gas. At more than 100x the climate impact of carbon dioxide when it is first released, methane is a supercharged contributor to climate change.

Methane escapes into the atmosphere from oil and gas production wells and associated equipment, gas compressors, and many other sources. Every ton of methane pollution is resources being wasted. Every ton contributes to an unstable climate in our lifetimes. Read more

EDF Bowes Fellow Works to Revolutionize Nitrogen Use in Farms

When was the last time you enjoyed a chicken sandwich for lunch, chicken wings at a bar, or grilled chicken at a family cookout? If you’re like many Americans – myself included – the answer is recently. We all know poultry is a staple. But what many don’t know is that producing all that chicken takes a lot of resources and creates a large environmental footprint that stretches from the plate to millions of acres of corn and soybeans. In fact, the largest part of poultry’s environmental footprint is from corn fields.

The reason? The corn that dominates poultry diets depends on huge amounts of fertilizer packed with nitrogen – a key nutrient to make things grow. That’s not a problem in itself, but here’s the rub: closely matching nitrogen applied to what the crop takes up is very difficult, and many farmers lack the information they need to be efficient.  Apply too much, and extra nitrogen runs off into water or is released to the atmosphere as greenhouse gas. But apply too little, and the farmer loses yield.

Fortunately, there is a proven solution to this challenge facing both farmers and the environment. A small but growing group of farmers from Iowa plains to North Carolina hills are approaching fertilizer differently. Armed with technology like GPS and aerial imagery, farmers gain much better information about the nutrient needs of their own fields. Empowered, they fine-tune how they manage nitrogen to apply the right rate at the right time and place. Those advances slash nitrogen runoff and greenhouse gas emissions. And they bring something equally important – cash savings for farmers who can cut fertilizer costs without hurting the yield they and their families depend on.

The exciting news is that the fact based solution is known. The challenge is that we need to take it to scale on the over 90 million acres of American corn farmland. As Corporate Partnership’s Project Manager and inaugural William K. Bowes Fellow, I will use my McKinsey consulting expertise to help find innovative business approaches that make that happen. If you have an appetite for this kind of progress, I hope you’ll stay tuned and share your voice.