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Researchers at the University were recently awarded a grant from the Department of Energy to develop a sensor to detect methane leaks from pipelines, compressor stations, and other midstream infrastructure. The University will be awarded $1,188,735 over the course of three years for this project, according to Christopher Freitas, senior program manager for the Department of Energy’s Fossil Energy Midstream Natural Gas Infrastructure Program.

This initiative comes from the Office of Fossil Energy as part of the President's Climate Action Plan Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions.

“Methane is 25 times more efficient at trapping heat than CO2 over 100 years,” Freitas said. He explained that because of the current climate issues, they are looking into research for methane mitigation and methane quantification.

The grant awarded to the University falls under the category of methane mitigation, Freitas said. University researchers will be working to use a chirped laser dispersion spectroscopy system to detect atmospheric methane. This system allows for the use of optical dispersion rather than optical absorption, allowing for many advantages when used in remote sensing, he added.

Mark Zondlo, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, is the lead engineer and principal investigator for the project. He is partnering with Gerard Wysocki, the co-principal investigator on this project and an associate professor of electrical engineering. Both are part of the Center for Mid-InfraRed Technologies for Health and the Environment at the University.

Zondlo explained that his group works to investigate problems in atmospheric chemistry, namely the key problems in climate, air pollution, atmospheric composition, and emission. His group conducts research on global climate change and air quality.

Wysocki works primarily on the development of laser-based spectroscopic systems for chemical sensing.

Wysocki did not respond to a request for comment.

“This project is a joint project among Gerard and myself to understand, and make a new tool using chirped laser dispersion spectroscopy,” Zondlo said.

He explained that the group hopes to use this new technology to detect leaks at midstream facilities.

Midstream facilities are compressor stations, gathering lines, and long distance transmission lines, Zondlo said. He noted that, in America, there are approximately three million miles of pipeline, and that these lines are leaking, presenting a major problem for the environment. The main issue is that methane emission accelerates climate change because it is a more effective greenhouse gas. According to Zondlo, the combustion of natural gas produces twice as much energy per amount of CO2 emitted as the combustion of coal. Within recent years, the U.S. economy has shifted towards the use of natural gas, which is better for the environment than coal. However, methane leaks have the possibility of canceling out some of these climate benefits because the release of a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 will contribute negatively to climate change.

Zondlo said that they hope to develop a technology that can be mounted to vehicles in order to detect methane leaks along the pipelines. Vehicles such as cars and aircraft can move along the pipeline and scan for these leaks. Current methods of scanning for leaks include taking aerial photographs to search for dead vegetation, but this only detects large methane leaks.

“We look forward to working with Princeton on this critical research,” Feritas said.

This research group will be sending in a Performance Management Plan to the Office of Fossil Fuel at the end of October, Freitas said. After review by the department, the project will proceed for the next three years. Freitas said that the goal for the first year is to develop a fully-functional laser dispersion spectroscopy system for methane detection capable of simultaneous range finding and chemical sensing.

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