Although natural gas has been hailed for being safe and green, its ability to fight climate change and its environmental benefits have for years been greatly reduced by the inclination to leak into the air without detection. However, this problem will soon be over after laser technology, borrowed partially from telecommunication industry, started being used to give engineers and scientists important new tools for measuring natural gas leaks and track their origin. The Pacific Gas & Electric, a company operating in central and northern California, has already started using the technology and it has began employee training for the use of a portable gas detector.
When it comes to escape of natural gas into the air, two basic methods are involved: human activity e.g. leaking of pipelines and gas wells and leakage from natural sources such as marshes and swamps. With increased rates in the production of natural gas, concerns have been raised about a subsequent increase in the leaking of natural gas into the air. The amount of the gas that leaks into the air has however remained a mystery. According to John C. Bosch, a retired specialist in the issue of leaking, the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A) has been operating based on guesses even after working on the question of the amount that leaks for years.
However, regardless of whether the gas leaked from natural sources of due to human activity, methane, the major component in natural gas, has been termed as a major cause of global warming. According to E.P.A, one pound of methane is 25 times stronger than CO2 when it comes to climate warming over a period of 100 years. Methane has also been found to be dangerous to an extent it can cause death for example when a pipeline for the Pacific & Gas Electric leaked in 2010 in San Bruno killing 8 people.
The new detector which is built by Picarro, a company that specializes in the manufacture of scientific instruments, is currently being used to detect methane and it can be able to determine whether the natural gas leak was produced by bacteria in landfills, swamps and sewers or whether it originated from gas wells. By distinguishing between the two sources of leaks, industrial polluters cannot be able to deny plausibly that they are causing leaks. The new detector was demonstrated in 2011 with researchers putting it in the trunk of a car then driving through Boston, a city a maze of old underground pipelines for gas. The researcher found a total of 3,356 methane leaks and some had 15 times normal methane concentrations in the air.
Apart from the Picarro system, there are also other gas detection techniques being used by other companies such as Physical Sciences of Andover, Mass., which uses a lantern-like equipment which project laser beams and then measures what is bounced back. With the technology to detect natural gas leaks now available, methane leaks can now be easily located and fixed. This will make sure that natural gas lives up to being green and safe.