The sky’s the limit for methane monitoring start-up

Image: Bluefield

A Quebec City-based start up has some high hopes for its new methane emissions monitoring technology.

Very, very high.

Bluefield Technologies, Inc. wants to install its optical emissions sensors in a backpack-sized micro-satellite that would be loaded into a rocket and sent into orbit about 500 kilometres above the earth. The company’s proprietary sensors can detect methane “fingerprints” in sunlight reflections, enabling it to pinpoint and quantify methane from emitters around the world.

 “The underlying approach or technique has been used by NASA for space missions,” says Yotam Ariel, co-founder and chief executive officer. “But we've been able to take it to the next level [to] make it more compact and enhance it with machine vision algorithms.”

The company’s technology enables unprecedented precision to pinpoint emitting sources, allowing the company to map every critical emitter on the planet, according to Ariel, who estimates three out of every four methane leaks are missed by oil and gas operators.

The satellite would provide detailed information on emissions from sites such as well pads, pipelines and refineries with a pixel resolution of 20 metres. “It’s very, very detailed,” he says. “Not to which valve [is leaking] but whether it’s worth sending somebody out [to check].”  

On every pass, the satellite would download data to a network of ground stations and there would be radio frequency communication components on both the satellite and on the ground station. The raw data would go onto the cloud where it is refined using the company’s machine vision algorithms and processed to be made available to clients through its data platform.

Initially one Bluefield satellite would cover the entire globe weekly, but the plan is to increase that to four and then eight satellites that would result in daily monitoring. Over time, the company also will be adding the capabilities to monitor not just methane but carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxide (N2O) and carbon monoxide (CO).

Bluefield, with roots in Silicon Valley and an office in New York City, could potentially sign up thousands of corporate and government clients that will be able to subscribe to a database of the information from the satellites, based on their individual requirements. The information will enable them to generate reports, such as their emissions over the quarter. “It's evolving, so they can see, for example, if their emissions have been increasing and how they compare to other operators in the Permian Basin, for example,” says Ariel.

While subscription costs would depend on the scope of operations, “it’s 10 times cheaper than what you would have to spend to fly an airplane to do those type of measurements,” he says. Bluefield clients already include some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies.

Bluefield’s first satellite, which will cost less than $10 million to deploy, is part of a “new space business” with smaller and cheaper satellites which can be launched from a commercial rocket along with a number of other satellites destined for low Earth orbit. Companies can now book a spot on a rocket through a broker whose job is to ensure they’re getting the best deal in terms of timing and cost.

According to Ariel, the satellite technology is “very close” to the point where it can be sent into space. “We’ve completed hundreds of controlled releases for methane and we've demonstrated the capabilities of our sensor in real world conditions,” he says. “We had it on a helicopter at one kilometre altitude and different distances as well.” In addition, Bluefield has tested key aspects of its technology from the edge of space with the use of high altitude balloons.

Although the company hopes to launch its satellite in late 2021, Ariel acknowledges the date isn’t set in stone. “We are a technology start-up and there are delays in launches, we've seen that,” he says. “But whether it goes up in 2021 or 2022, the need for direct and continuous monitoring of those only gets stronger. Sooner or later it's a worthwhile effort.”

Indeed, it is an effort that a number of companies and national space agencies are also pursuing, each with its own technology and specification of monitoring. Montreal-based GHGSat Inc. was among the first private companies to enter the space-based monitoring race with its first satellite launched in 2016. A second satellite, Iris, was launched in June and the company plans to have 10 satellites in orbit by the end of 2022 to increase the frequency of the data it collects. The U.S.-based non-profit Environmental Defense Fund is also developing the MethaneSAT orbiter with plans to make its methane monitoring data public.

As a start-up, Bluefield has benefited from its participation in the Creative Destruction Lab, a Canadian technology start-up accelerator. Company advisors also include Chris Hadfield, a retired Canadian astronaut and a former commander of the International Space Station. It also has benefitted from the talent in high-end optic facilities in Quebec City and the expertise in machine vision and machine learning.

Bluefield has demonstrated its central technology to the Canadian government and now is discussing a larger scope of work. “Governments have a real challenge to keep track of the emitters,” says Ariel. “They know that some companies have put a lot of effort [in] trying to advance and reduce emissions and venting, and others are not. Using our data, they will be able to see who are the good stewards and who needs to have a discussion.”

The Bluefield CEO says he has been fortunate to partner with Richard Lachance, co-founder and chief technology officer. A Quebec native, he had been involved in more than six different satellites missions focusing on and understanding the atmosphere, in particular greenhouse gases. Lachance has worked on NASA, European Space Agency and Japanese Space Agency satellites, some of which still are in operation.

A former naval squad leader, Ariel became involved in Bluefield after seeing the impact of climate change and setting up a clean energy company that brought sustainable electricity to 60,000 residents of 15 developing countries.  “I certainly enjoyed doing that but then I realized that there is an opportunity for a much bigger impact on climate change and it can be supported by an attractive business model,” he says.