Methane Detection

This blog series Technology Highlight explores some of the ways that investments in innovation lead to better outcomes for infrastructure and public safety. When technology advances, it often becomes cheaper, more widely available and accessible, and helps facilitate faster, safer, and greener projects.

This series has highlighted many of the ways that innovation leads to greater access to technology. Narrowing into damage prevention, we’ve explored the way technology at One-Call centers, through locator equipment, and for onsite communication improves safety outcomes. The focus on damage prevention is critical, because it is the foundation of all infrastructure work. In order to build, we must break ground. And when we do, we risk exposing and damaging the subsurface infrastructure already in place! As we zoom further out in this technology highlight series, we see ways that innovative solutions around the broader infrastructure sphere ultimately continue to offer safety, efficiency, and value to the damage prevention space.

Last time, perhaps counterintuitively, we took to the skies to help see what is underground. In this blog, put on special glasses to once again see the invisible. No, not underground facilities, something even harder to detect: methane.

Methane – also known simply as natural gas – is a colorless, odorless, and highly flammable gas, which presents challenges in locating leaks. Fugitive methane issues are at least twofold: concerning atmospheric concentration and economic loss. Addressing each of these is critical, making technology to identify leaks and emissions highly valuable and exceptionally useful.

The United State’s nationwide pipeline infrastructure transports trillions of cubic feet of natural gas throughout the country each year. While pipeline incidents are rare, the main gas that leaks from pipelines is methane. Methane is also vented from exploration and production sites, either being emitted directly to the atmosphere or burned at the source. A powerful greenhouse gas, methane has potentially 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, despite its shorter lifetime in the atmosphere. Moreover, methane losses from the energy sector account for an estimated $30 billion dollars of lost profit for the oil and gas industry per year. These climate and economic pressures have bred technological solutions.

Among the innovations in methane and pipeline leak detection are remote sensing with lasers, drones, LiDar, and even satellites. These can help managers in the oil field, pipeline operators, and climate solutions engineers develop strategies for minimizing and capturing methane emissions.

A pilot project in Colorado utilizes laser absorption spectroscopy a technology that uses lasers, mirrors, and light detectors to measure the amount of light absorbed by methane leaks – from a small aircraft flown over pipelines. With the proliferation of low-cost drones, this technology has become more accurate, with drones being able to fly much closer to pipelines to pinpoint leaks that emit as little as ten grams per hour. The information collected by the drone can be displayed with high-resolution imagery, in order to provide repair crews with a clear map of leaks along a pipeline or inside a power plant. Gas giant Shell has already begun a two year pilot program with Avitas Aviation by deploying drones carrying laser absorption technology combined with optical gas imaging cameras to monitor over 500 sites in the U.S.  

Similar to the previous laser technology, Lidar systems are being targeted for more research and development to drive down costs that prevent wider deployment. One promising technology is the autonomous natural gas leak detection system from Aeris Technologies that quantifies and locates leaks based on methane traces in the air and the wind’s direction. This autonomous technology uses sensors placed around pipelines to map out both the size and location of a leak. Collaborations between several companies and the Department of Energy have established a goal of cutting the costs of these LiDar systems to $1,400-$2,220 per year for a single well site. By introducing drones to carry LiDar technology to multiple well sites each day, costs are projected to continue to decrease for LiDar-related technologies in the next decade. 

The final innovation in methane detection technology occurs in outerspace, with satellites even discovering massive emission incidents almost by accident. While scanning for emission from a volcano in western Turkmenistan, GHGSat’s satellite discovered a large methane leak from a nearby gas field. Satellites are able to map methane emissions using a spectrometer to detect methane concentrations as low as parts per billion and able to visualize areas as small as 100 meters. Others use natural absorption of light to map out concentrations of methane and other greenhouse gases, with satellites able to quantify the source in tens of meters.

Satellite advantages include the ability to bypass legal or territorial barriers to locating emissions like no-fly zones and can carry more technology to develop extremely detailed pictures of emissions sites. Costs and the speed of locating leaks remain barriers to satellite utilization as a primary methane emission locator. Overall, satellite detection of emissions holds promising possibilities of keeping tabs on emissions worldwide, but is still a relatively new technology in the emissions detection sector. 

Identifying methane emissions are important for those using natural gas as an economic product – like energy companies, pipeline operators, and consumers. It is also vital to reduce methane emissions that will ultimately contribute to atmospheric warming. But a third beneficiary of methane detection technology is the damage prevention industry. Many leaks and fugitive emissions are not in long transmission pipelines crossing stretches of the nation or even at the wellhead, but occur under city streets and in neighborhoods. These natural gas leaks are the result of road work, utility maintenance, and excavation for construction jobs. Often seemingly minor nicks to subsurface infrastructure actually generate small leaks, which overtime can fill buildings leading to asphyxiation or poisoning in confined spaces or even full-scale explosions. Detecting these emissions means identifying excavation damage, enabling safe repair, and adding valuable data to the damage prevention sector to prevent future incidents.

The future for methane detection technology looks promising. Because of these new technologies, methane leaks have become a more pressing issue for industry groups and governments to address, as the scale of leakages is much greater than previous estimates. With the current implementation of machine-learning software in methane detection systems, along with drones and even satellites, the accuracy, frequency, and affordability of methane detection stands to decrease. This will not only improve the state of the economy, but offer climate and environmental benefits and critical public safety advantages from reforms in the damage prevention process.

In the next blog, we will explore more of the latest technologies spread across the damage prevention process, including those that help alert operators to prior or real-time incidents.


Written by Roy Mathews, Public Policy Associate


Interested in other technology highlights? Stay tuned for more ways technology is making damage prevention safer.


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.