Identifying Methane Leaks with Remote Sensing Applications
Methane leaks are something most of us don’t pay a lot of attention to. After all, methane is considered benign to human health unless a person is exposed to extremely high volumes of the gas. And yet, identifying and addressing methane leaks is critical for a number of industries, including energy and mining. Those industries are turning to remote sensing applications now being developed by partnerships between the public and private sector.
As an example, Ball Aerospace recently introduced a new remote sensing technology while participating in the Stanford University and Environmental Defense Fund Mobile Monitoring Challenge. The company’s technology is capable of detecting and sourcing methane leaks over wide survey areas and with extreme sensitivity.
Why is such technology necessary? Because methane is not visible to the naked eye. It is also odorless at room temperature. The lack of visual and olfactory markers has led to multiple methane explosions in the mining industry. Furthermore, large-scale methane leaks in the energy industry can result in large volumes of this potent greenhouse gas escaping undetected.
California Leak Was the ‘Big One’
Californians talk about the ‘big one’ in reference to earthquakes. But beginning in October 2015, the Golden State was home to the energy industries ‘big one’. A methane leak resulting from a well blowout at a Southern California Gas storage facility led to nearly 100,000 metric tons of methane being released into the atmosphere. The leak is believed to be the largest in history.
A lack of media coverage meant that very few people knew about the leak. The general public was unaware that it took five months to seal it. During that time, some 4,000 families were displaced from their homes. The leak doubled the normal rate of methane emissions in the Los Angeles region at its peak, potentially contributing to the area’s already serious smog problem.
Unfortunately, officials do not know if the leak actually started on the date named in official reports. It could have started earlier. Without a clear strategy in place to monitor potential leaks, the energy industry says that such leaks are probably more common than most people realize.
Turning to Remote Sensing Applications
The lessons to be learned from the California leak are many. Among them are the need for new, advanced remote sensing technologies capable of alerting officials to leaks in their earliest stages. The remote sensing application developed by Ball Aerospace is a giant leap forward, but it is a mobile solution.
Officials at Rock West Solutions in Santa Barbara, CA say that mobile technologies can be greatly enhanced by better remote sensing applications on the ground. A combination of ground-based and aerial sensors would provide the most complete coverage for both energy and mining purposes. In the mining arena, ground-based remote sensing is more critical to the immediate safety of workers.
The Dangers of Methane Gas
The need for better remote sensing applications is demonstrated by the dangers of methane gas. Though the gas is non-toxic, it is not harmless. Multiple mining explosions demonstrate just how dangerous the gas is in terms of combustion. The mining industry has to get better at identifying methane leaks if they hope to minimize methane-related explosions.
From a broader perspective, most people do not realize that methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Every metric ton released into the atmosphere adds to what some scientists already consider a serious problem.
Fortunately, methane is a naturally occurring gas that we can control. We just need to develop and harness better remote sensing technology capable of wide-area coverage.