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To find gas leaks, CSU team Googles ’em

FORT COLLINS – For Colorado State University biology professor Joe von Fischer, work is a gas.

Methane gas, to be exact.

For the third year, Fischer and his CSU team are studying data fed to them from devices they developed through grants from the Environmental Defense Fund to measure how much methane is leaking from the miles of underground pipelines that deliver natural gas to American homes and businesses.

“The EDF brought us on board to develop the algorithm for interpreting the data,” said von Fischer.

It all started in late 2012 when von Fischer and a CSU student designed a methane sensor system, mounted it onto the back of a car and drove it around Fort Collins to see if they could find and measure methane leaks. They also conducted some “controlled-release” experiments to calibrate the system. “It took us awhile to figure out the algorithm so that we could write the code,” he said.

Now, the suitcase-sized devices, built by Picarro Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., are placed each year in selected cities on the backs of Google cars – the same Subaru Imprezas with the roof-mounted 360-degree cameras that provide the mobile street views for Google Maps.

The device, with an associated Global Positioning Satellite transceiver, collects readings from the air. The telemetry is uploaded to Google’s servers, from where it’s accessed by the CSU researchers. EDF uses the data to create interactive maps that depict the location and volume of methane leaks beneath the selected cities.

Boston, Indianapolis and Staten Island were the targets for 2013, and in 2014 the devices were used in Burlington, Vt., and Syracuse, N.Y. “In the next six weeks, we’ll be developing relationships with utilities, and then we can announce where we’re testing this year,” von Fischer said. “We might get five more cities this year. We’re trying our best to get a nationwide sample going to that we can capture the diversity of cities and conditions.”

For instance, the data showed very few leaks in Indianapolis – maybe one every 150 miles of pipeline – but one every mile in Boston.

Utilities have always monitored possible leaks, but mounting sensors on cars and mapping the computer-fed readings has made the process much more comprehensive.
A small leak isn’t necessarily better than a big one, von Fischer said.

“It’s complicated to talk about size versus hazard,” he said. “A large leak would have an odor that would be noticed – but small leaks might not be. Even small leaks can create a hazard in a small space, where a sudden huge event can cause an explosion. And thousands of small leaks can add up.

“There’s also the waste of fuel – and, of course, the climate hazard. Climate scientists largely agree that methane and other super-charged pollutants are intensifying the rate of the Earth’s warming and negatively affecting our climate.”

The primary component in natural gas, methane is much more potent than carbon dioxide, he said.

Utilities, often at odds with environmental advocates, have been generally supportive of this program, he said. “They’re naturally often wary and protective of their reputations, but we’ve conducted meetings with them to show them the benefits. In every case, that initial wariness has been resolved.

“If a utility is unhappy with our findings, they have a chance to write their own conclusions in a press statement. But that hasn’t happened.”

One of the goals of the EDF project is to provide utilities with another tool to better detect leaks and prioritize which pipes need to be repaired first. The sensor can differentiate immediate hazards that need immediate attention from smaller problems that can be addressed the next time utility repair crews come around, von Fischer said.

The CSU team is in its second 12- to 14-month round of funding from the EDF. For the future, von Fischer said, they’re anxious to push the boundaries of what they can gather and curious about what the next generation of measuring instruments will look like.

Any surprises so far?

“One branch of science I didn’t expect to be involved is sociology,” von Fischer said. “When the maps were colorized to show the different levels of leaked gas, the EDF worked with social scientists to see how people responded. To me as a scientist, it’s fascinating to look at the sociology of it.”

Dallas Heltzell can be reached at 970-232-3149, 303-630-1962 or dheltzell@bizwestmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DallasHeltzell.