Scientists propose 'methane-sniffing drones' to cut leaks

  • Katie Colaneri

An international team of scientists and engineers has an idea to curb what they say is a waste of natural resources and contributor to climate change: to make drillers pay a state-imposed fee for leaked or flared gas. And in order to map and measure those leaks, the group proposes a fleet of “methane-sniffing drones” connected to sensors in smart phones.
It’s one of the winning proposals from MIT’s Climate CoLab, which uses crowd-sourcing to find new ideas for addressing climate change. The winners are making their elevator pitches at a conference at MIT today before policymakers and potential investors.
“Because of its greenhouse gas potency, escaped methane counteracts the benefits of replacing coal with natural gas,” says team leader Mark Capron in a video pitch.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that burns cleaner than coal, but traps far more heat than carbon dioxide and some scientists say, could accelerate climate change. One of the chief environmental concerns about the natural gas drilling process is methane migration, or leaks from shale formations deep underground into aquifers or further up into the atmosphere. Flaring is also a controversial technique used by drillers and refineries to burn excess gas.
Capron’s team wants legislatures in major gas-producing states like Pennsylvania to pass laws that would impose fees for methane releases and authorize the purchase of thousands of sensors.

Here’s how the team explains it:

Thousands of mobile sensors would be the “meters” for measuring any waste of natural resources: in a flare; as unburned methane post-flare; as leaked methane anywhere (active or closed drill site, electric power plant, or distribution system).  The State would pay a nominal sum for people (and businesses) to carry methane sensors connected to smart phones.  The small sensors would create ground-level 2-D maps of methane plumes while automatically summoning drones to create 3-D maps.  The 3-D maps are used to calculate the “sales” volume.

Capron, a marine engineer with California-based start-up called PODenergy, says it would help collect better data about air quality and save natural gas supplies for the future.
“We need states, particularly North Dakota, Pennsylvania and California to put a price on leaked and flared methane,” Capron says in the video. “A stiff price on leaks would create more jobs as industry sells the gas they would otherwise leak or flare.”
Watch Capron’s team’s pitch video below: