Carbon dioxide has long been a target when it comes to cleaning up emissions and fighting climate change, but in the last few years, methane’s role has also been scrutinized.
“When we think of greenhouse gases, oftentimes we think of only carbon dioxide, or that’s maybe the most commonly reported,” explained Shane Siebenaler, Director of Fluid Engineering at Southwest Research Institute. “Methane is actually a much more powerful greenhouse gas.”
In fact, studies show that it traps more than 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. High quantities of methane are released through three major processes:
“You have agricultural. So, for example, manure management. You have landfills, and then you have oil and gas,” said Siebenaler.
The agricultural and landfill emissions are bi-products. But when it comes to the oil and gas industry, producing methane is the end goal.
“Methane makes up about 90 to 95 percent of the natural gas that would come into your home,” said Siebenaler. “And when that gas leaks from the system instead of being burned at the endpoint, that creates a greenhouse gas effect.”
Unfortunately, leaks happen more than you might expect due to the sheer number of pipelines.
“Just in the United States, [there’s] about 2.6 million miles of gas pipeline. So that’s everything from transmission lines to the distribution lines that come to your home. There are a lot more opportunities for leaks to occur,” explained Siebenaler.
At SWRI, a model of a full-working natural gas facility can be found on campus to research the issue. Sibenaler leads the team that researches such facilities and explained that flange or elbow connections along any pipelines provide an opportunity for a leak. He also noted that it is important to remember that methane is not visible to the naked eye and it’s odorless.
“When you’re losing somewhere in the order of about five percent of the gas, it actually contributes more to climate change than coal burning,” said Siebenaler.
To add to it, there is also intentional venting of methane by gas companies, too. All of it is monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is no easy job. That’s where Heath Spidle, a research engineer at Southwest Research Institute and his team, are making a difference. They have helped develop cameras that operate off of the infrared spectrum.
“So when you use this camera, what you’re doing is you actually are trying to see the methane that is you can’t see with the human eye,” said Spidle.
The methane, through the camera, appears as a red cloud -- allowing for the detection of even small leaks. To take it a step further, Spidle has made the equipment more user-friendly and capable of being attached to a drone.
“You can fly around your sites and give these inspections done much quicker,” said Spidle. “And with the machine learning aspect of it, you can flag every component that you see when you’re in the air.”
This makes the process more efficient and capable of detecting more leaks. Most importantly, however, it makes it more cost-effective.
SWRI joins several others around the world who are perfecting this technology that will become more prevalent in the coming years, especially as the natural gas industry takes on a growing role to fill the gap between coal burning and renewable energy.