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This Car Sniffs Out Gas Leaks

A new vehicle from Ameren will patrol Illinois neighborhoods in search of methane leaks. 

No, this isn’t the tagline for a new installment of Pixar’s Cars series. Rather, it’s a creative way for an Illinois-based company to tackle methane emissions throughout the state. Ameren, an electric services company operating in the Midwest, has recently unveiled what they have deemed a ‘methane-sniffing vehicle’ to detect leaks and dangerous pockets of the accumulated gas that sit in the air. 

While carbon emissions are the center of the vast majority of pollution-based discussion worldwide, methane packs a far greater punch. According to this year’s report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, methane emissions can be expected to warm the atmosphere at a rate of 80 times that of carbon dioxide over 20 years. Given this news, we can expect efforts to address these types of emissions will ramp up both domestically and internationally. 

Image courtesy of Chris LeBoutillier

Although methane is not as omnipresent in our daily lives as carbon dioxide is, the greater potency means the problem requires a similar level of vigilance from governments and private businesses alike. Oil and natural gas operations have traditionally been the main culprits of these emissions. A single leak from the facilities that house these operations can send untold amounts of the gas into the atmosphere. There are systems in place to address these leaks. However, they generally amount to a series of inspections done periodically by humans carrying thermal imaging hardware. The downside of this method is obvious– a leak that happens immediately after an inspection will likely continue unfettered until the next scheduled inspection takes place.

As one such power company, Ameren has decided not to wait for government regulation and instead attempt to police itself through its ‘methane-sniffing car’ system. Beginning in its home state of Illinois, the company is rolling out a small fleet of vehicles equipped with cutting-edge detection technology as an unending ‘methane watch’ of sorts that will supplement the traditional in-person inspections. Each vehicle comes fitted with a long-range analyzer that takes air samples as the car drives along. These samples are recorded along with wind speed and directional data, all of which are then run through an algorithm in the event of methane or ethane detection. 

The algorithm takes the positive readings, cross-references them with the locational data points, and spits out estimated coordinates of the suspected leak. The car operator will then be able to relay those coordinates to an Ameren team on standby, who will respond and address the leak. 

Image courtesy of Mika Baumeister

It is likely that other power suppliers will begin to follow in Ameren’s footsteps amidst growing cries from the United Nations Environmental Programme and other international entities for round-the-clock, 24/7 methane monitoring across the globe. The ability for these companies to adequately keep track of methane leaks hinges largely on a particular technological field known as optical imaging. Since methane is virtually undetectable to the human eye, hardware like the Honeywell Rebellion Gas Cloud Imaging System has emerged, using hyperspectral imaging to pick out heat signatures and other methane indicators for on-site workers to then handle the issue. 
Ameren VP of Natural Gas Operations Eric Kozak remains a believer in the car for the mobility factor alone. “Ameren Illinois inspects thousands of miles of underground pipeline in neighborhoods every year,” says Kozak. “This new mobile technology we’re introducing will supplement our existing leak-detection practices and provide up to 1,000 times the sensitivity to help detect methane in the atmosphere.”


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