Technology About Gas

The sun to stop methan escape

 By Criselda Diala-McBride
About gas

As the world transitions to a carbon-free energy paradigm, natural gas has emerged as a cleaner alternative to crude oil and coal despite some drawbacks which can, however, be counteracted…

Natural gas is made up mostly (around 90%) of methane, an odorless, colorless and non-toxic gas, which—when burned for energy in power plants—produces just half the carbon dioxide (CO2) of coal. However, methane might be responsible for releasing greenhouse gas leaks into the atmosphere, either deliberately or accidentally across the natural gas supply chain—from drilling and hydraulic fracturing, to non-routine flaring and liquids unloading. Deliberate emissions are often done as part of operational safety protocols in power plants. An example is venting, which is the controlled discharge of methane into the atmosphere to depressurize equipment and pipelines as part of routine maintenance or emergencies. Flaring, the controlled burning of natural gas, is also used for the safe handling and disposal of unwanted or excess gas. Still, small amounts of unburned methane can escape from the flare stack, contributing to emissions.

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Gas flares shining through the night sky in this satellite view of western North Dakota (NASA)

Both venting and flaring processes can have a strong impact on valuable resources and energy capacity. For this reason, there is a growing call for the natural gas industry to adopt solutions that enable the recovery and use of methane by piping the gas to a plant or on-site capture facility. Accidental  emissions come from the so-called fugitive methane leaks or natural gas that escapes from well and refinery equipment before it is stocked, transported or burned. These include leaks from storage tanks, pipelines, flanges, outdated compressor and surface valves and other equipment. Because methane cannot be detected by the human sense of smell, leaks are difficult to find and therefore often go unrepaired.

Under the sign of the Sun

Despite this, natural gas remains a cleaner alternative to coal. But more needs to be done to mitigate methane emissions. One of the possible solutions is solar energy applications, such as solar-powered turbines that can capture and recompress methane to prevent venting. Capturing methane emissions and converting them into valuable energy products could be worth tens of billions of dollars a year, according to industry experts, creating huge benefits not only from a business perspective but from an environmental standpoint as well. Power plant operators may also consider using solar-powered sensing solutions like those developed by start-up Quanta3, which can detect methane leaks. Quanta3’s cloud-based methane sensing system uses lasers to identify methane by how its molecule absorb light. It is also capable of sending e-mail notification to alert oil and gas operators when emissions are at high levels.

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Quanta3's cloud-based methane sensing system (Quanta3/Equinor)

Baker Hughes (BHGE), a GE company, also developed a ground- and drone-based methane detection system called LUMEN. Like Quanta3, it uses cloud technology to accurately and efficiently monitor methane leaks in real-time, empowering operators to act quickly. Meanwhile, IBM has developed a smart sensor, a 5 millimeter-by-5 millimeter microchip (about the size of a grain of rice) that is part of a solar-powered methane monitoring system. The chips can be embedded in a network of IoT  sensors on the ground, within an infrastructure or on drones to help operators detect the origin and quantity of methane emissions. Methane leaks pose a serious challenge to the natural gas industry but through some smart and sustainable solutions it is possible to combat the methane emissions threat and even produce valuable and potentially profitable energy sources.

READ MORE: The end of coal, the rise of natural gas by Luca Longo

about the author
Criselda Diala-McBride
Dubai-based journalist with 20 years of experience writing and editing finance, aviation, tourism, retail, technology, property and oil and gas articles for a range of print and online publications.