Natural gas is often touted as a cleaner sort of fossil fuel–better for the atmosphere than coal, and a potential “bridge” to a future powered by renewables. But its credentials are actually open to debate. If gas is burned, then its emissions are about 50% lower than coal, research shows. But if it leaks–well, it doesn’t look so good.
Natural gas is made from methane, which in its unburned form, is up to 80 times more powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. And methane has a tendency to leak. Some scientists think natural gas could actually contribute more to climate change than coal, after you account for “fugitive” emissions from gas wells and other sources.
The strange thing is, the gas industry doesn’t do a good job of leak monitoring currently. Ben Ratner, a manager at the Environmental Defense Fund, describes efforts as “periodic at best.” The available devices don’t help. At $35,000 a piece, they’re not the sort of equipment you put in every worker’s pocket.
EDF is therefore trying to find cheaper, easier-to-use methane detectors, and it’s enlisted seven oil and gas companies to help source some solutions. “The goal is creating new tools for companies, so they can detect and fix more leaks in less time,” Ratner says. “Speed is everything here. Why wait months to detect harmful greenhouse gas leaks, when technology advances can allow real-time, remote detection at highly dispersed facilities? We’re all used to getting status updates [quickly]. Methane updates should be no different.”
The Methane Detectors Challenge, which is looking for a device costing less than $1,000, just announced its five initial winners, each of which now go forward for more testing at an institute in Texas.
For example, RAE Systems and Sweden’s SenseAir are repurposing a $100 alcohol sensor that normally belongs on a car steering wheel (stopping people driving if they’re over the limit). A team from Oakland University, in Michigan, is building a tiny detector that they hope will cost less than $30. The firms Dalian Actech and Foller & Associates are adapting a laser-based methane detection system that’s currently used in the Chinese coal industry. Quanta3, from Colorado, is also exploring laser sensors. And, finally, a team from the University of Colorado Boulder is working an integrated circuit board that uses “off-the-shelf” metal oxide sensors.
Ratner is hopeful the challenge will lead to cheaper devices that make detection easier, and thus reduce gas’s contribution to global warming. “Reducing methane emissions is a must-take step on the path to avoiding the worst climate change has in store for us and our kids,” he says.