Google features CSU associate biology professor’s research into methane leaks

Ashley Haberman

Joe Von Fischer holds one of his team's methane analyzers, able to take 20 samples per second. The analyzers were attached to Google Street View cars in order to map out leak locations. (Caio Pereira/Collegian)
Joe Von Fischer holds one of his team’s methane analyzers, able to take 20 samples per second. The analyzers were attached to Google Street View cars in order to map out leak locations. (Ashley Haberman/Collegian)

When you see a Google Street View car drive by with the big camera on the roof, it might doing more than taking a picture of your house – it might be mapping natural gas leaks. CSU associate biology professor Joe Von Fischer collaborated with Google Earth Outreach on a methane-mapping project that uses  technology to help reduce peoples carbon footprint, in a project that lead to the research being featured in the official Google blog.

“Google does interactions with research organizations that are environmentally focused,” Von Fischer said. “Air View is based on driving around and mesasuring the concentration of air pollutants and so that’s a project to get a handle on whats going on in the environment because the street cars are such a great platform.”

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Von Fischer heads a project to map invisible methane leaks from natural gas pipelines under the streets of American cities by using laser-based methane sensors attached to Google Street View cars. The tools used by Fischer’s research team and by the Google cars to measure this are real-time methane analyzers made by three different companies.

 “Methane is a green house gas, that means it absorbs infrared light, light that is basically heat that’s coming up from the Earth’s surface,” Fischer said. “These methane analyzers use infrared lasers… the laser shines out the same wave length that’s admitted by the methane molecule and it knows how much light it admitted and how much is missing… by that it figures out how much concentration of methane is in the air with incredible precision.”

Fischer said old methane analyzers would take a whole minute to get a sample of methane. With the new technology, that time has been significantly reduced to twenty samples per second.

“You can really measure the methane concentration rising and falling as you move through the street,” Fischer said. “When you have a natural gas leak it creates a really conspicuous type of elevated methane reading over a really short space.” 

Soil and Crop Sciences Professor Jay Ham helped to collaborate on the methane-mapping project, and said there are two parts to the mapping process, part looking at where methane leaks have been identified, and part ranking the leaks by importance. 

“The idea with the google cars was that we could put sensors on these cars that sample the air and as they drive around we can make maps of air properties or air pollution, especially methane leaks coming up from the pipeline systems because those pipes get leaks sometimes and so its really important to fix those for green house gas issues, to try and reduce our carbon foot print, and for safety reasons,” Ham said.

Fischer said that bringing awareness to the presence of methane leaks and working to emphasize the importance of figuring out the size of big leaks is a huge component of methane-mapping project. 

“We’ve been working with utilities to measure methane concentrations in cities, and these analyzers are much more sensitive then the types of analyzers than the utilities have at their disposal,” Fischer said. “This technology hasn’t penetrated the utility market yet, so one of the things we are trying to do is to show utilities that other technologies exist that help with leak detection and help figure out how much methane is leaking out in individual leaks so that they can use the amount of methane coming out as part of a prioritization system.”

Collegian reporter Ashley Haberman can be reached at news@collegian.com

 

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