Planes, drones and automobiles enlisted in hunt for methane emissions

Image: Environmental Defense Fund

Stanford University’s Natural Gas Initiative has teamed with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in a methane leak detection challenge launched to provide a level and controlled playing field for testing mobile monitoring technologies for use in the oil and gas industry.

The Mobile Monitoring Challenge (MMC) is an independent and peer-reviewed effort to test methane detection and quantification technologies that could provide rapid and low-cost assessment of significant emissions sources over a large numbers of facilities.

The competition is calling on engineers and technology developers to submit proposals for mobile methane leak monitoring technology by October 31. Eligible technologies could either be ground based (truck-mounted) or aerial (such as planes and helicopters, drones, satellites), with a key feature being the ability to quickly assess leaks while in motion and while off-site.

Selected teams will be invited to take part in a single-partial blind study of controlled methane releases at an outdoor test site in Sacramento, California, over a three-week period in early 2018.

A group led by Stanford University’s Adam Brandt, the principal investigator for MMC and a leading scientist in the study of oil and gas methane emissions, will design and administer a series of large-scale controlled methane releases at a single location and study teams will use mobile technologies to find and quantify the methane released.

A fraction of the controlled release data will be given to all the teams for calibration purposes, and teams will be expected to estimate the remaining release volumes. Following the experiment, Stanford scientists will independently analyze the estimates from teams and publish the results in open and peer-reviewed scientific journals.

“The Mobile Monitoring Challenge provides an exciting opportunity to compare — on an equal footing — numerous proposed methane detection technologies,” Brandt, an assistant professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, said in a release.

The challenge comes as regulators in Canada and the U.S. clamp down on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, which accounts for about one-third of all methane emissions in the U.S. In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency updated its standards to reduce methane emissions across the natural gas industry. However, low natural gas prices have reduced the economic incentive to employ expensive leak solutions.

When burned, natural gas releases about half as much carbon dioxide as coal. However, methane – a major component of natural gas – is a greenhouse gas 84 times as powerful as carbon dioxide over the first 20 years from release. Reducing leaks and emissions of unburned methane is therefore considered a key challenge to achieving a more sustainable energy system.

It is not the first time EDF has worked with industry to reduce methane emissions. Three years ago, EDF joined such oil and gas majors as Shell and Statoil to launch the Methane Detectors Challenge in the search for new stationary methane monitoring technologies. That effort has led to industry pilot projects at natural gas sites from Texas to Alberta.

'One-two punch'

Mobile monitoring offers the promise of surveying highly dispersed industrial facilities – including smaller and older ones – quickly and effectively. With an estimated one million well pads in the United States alone, the speed and coverage of monitoring matter, said EDF.

“Mobile methane monitoring could offer next generation capability that complements continuous monitoring. Together, they could offer a one-two punch to comprehensively monitor and address emissions that pose a serious challenge across a highly diverse industry,” Ben Ratner, director of EDF+Business, said in a statement.

After the competition concludes, Stanford researchers will analyze each team’s findings and publish the results in open and peer-reviewed scientific journals. “Going through the scientific peer-review process adds another layer of validation to our study and will help businesses and policy makers to make informed choices to achieve methane reduction targets,” said Arvind Ravikumar, a Stanford postdoctoral research fellow who is helping design the MMC.

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