Most pollutants are invisible to the human eye, until their effects make them impossible to ignore. Methane leakage, for example, the primary component of natural gas, is estimated to be the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide (CO2). Working on the premise of delivering new, affordable sensing technologies and leveraging IBM’s expertise in silicon photonics technology and advanced analytics, IBM researchers have made numerous technical advancements and produced a compact prototype optical methane sensor that is cloud-connected.
The team has field-tested an integrated IoT system comprising of a solar-powered distributed network of these methane sensors. The tests, conducted at a site operated by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), have shown promising results in locating and quantifying sources of methane leakage under realistic natural gas production conditions. The system is soon to undergo testing at client sites throughout the northeast.
The team is also on its way in development of the next generation of autonomous, weatherized, and easy-to-use methane sensors that can be deployed near natural gas extraction wells, around storage facilities, and along distribution pipelines, in a matter of minutes. Sophisticated cloud-based analytics operating on the data from these sensors combined with real-time weather and infrastructure data can create a methane management solution that not only increases the efficiency and minimizes the environmental impact of upstream natural gas operations, but also plays a role in downstream applications. For example, by working with public utilities, safety in densely populated urban areas could be improved through the early detection of potentially dangerous natural gas leaks in neighborhoods.