Sept. 13, 2019

University of Calgary research team meets methane leak detection challenge

Mobile technology to help oil and gas industry deal with greenhouse gas

A University of Calgary research team, in its efforts to detect leaks of a potent greenhouse gas from oil and gas facilities, literally rose to the challenge during testing by Stanford University.

The UCalgary team’s technology — the Portable Methane Leak Observatory (PoMELO) — was the only entry from any university to take part in the recent Mobile Monitoring Challenge, which was hosted by Stanford’s Natural Gas Initiative and the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

“It was a great opportunity to do what the University of Calgary does best – bringing together science and technology to work on an important industrial problem whose solution will be very beneficial to the environment,” says Thomas Barchyn, a research analyst in the Department of Geography in the Faculty of Arts.

Results published in study

Methane, or natural gas, is at least 70 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas over a two-decade period. As much as a third of all methane released in the U.S. alone is from oil and gas facilities such as pipelines and well sites.

Organizers described the Mobile Monitoring Challenge as the first independent assessment of moving or mobile gas leak detectors at well sites. Testing in Colorado and California involved technologies deployed using everything from airplanes and drones to trucks, with the results published Tuesday in Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene.

  • Photo above: University of Calgary's Chris Hugenholtz adjusts the rooftop equipment during the Stanford/EDF mobile challenge. Photo by Tom Barchyn, University of Calgary

While billed as a ‘challenge,’ the organizers had no intention of declaring a winner, as the technologies focused on different aspects of leak detection, such as exact location or size of the leak, says a Stanford news release.

Consumers familiar with the pungent smell of natural gas leaking from a stove may be surprised to learn that the scent is added by suppliers. When it first comes out of the ground, methane is odourless and colourless, making it “an extraordinarily complicated and difficult thing to find,” says Dr. Chris Hugenholtz, associate professor, and member of the University of Calgary team.

Birth of a new industry

PoMELO is one of several new technologies ready to help Canada’s oil and gas industry as it faces the imposition Jan. 1 of tougher federal regulations, says Barchyn. Surveys will be required one-to-three times per year at more than 45,000 oil and gas sites, he says.

The industry currently detects leaks using hand-held optical gas imaging cameras that are about the size of a video camcorder, he says. Not only do the devices each cost about $130,000, they require users to get close to each site, which means testing under the new rules will be particularly expensive due to manpower and equipment costs, he says.

PoMELO uses about 18 kilograms (40 lbs.) of equipment in a roof rack mounted on a standard oilfield service pickup truck, with the technology costing about half as much as a gas imaging camera, says Barchyn. Detection involves laser spectrometers, wind measurement instruments and GPS technology, while analysis is provided through computer techniques such as machine learning, he says.

“The act of driving by will give you the numbers,” he says. “We can also do work right on the pad, so that means essentially we drive on to the facility, circle it two times very quickly without even getting out of the truck, and then immediately, we have a picture of what is emitting and how much.”

PoMELO is in the process of being commercialized by the university’s Innovate Calgary office. "I think it will be part of the birth of a new methane detection industry,” says Barchyn.

PoMELO in Sacramento

Vehicle system in the Stanford/EDF mobile monitoring challenge in Sacramento, Calif.

Tom Barchyn, University of Calgary