In their labs at the University of Colorado, research scientists Dirk Richter and Petter Weibring were busy building lasers to detect gasses when Richter heard about a contest being held by the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“My wife forwarded me a tweet from the EDF saying this is a challenge," Richter said. "We looked at it and said, ‘Well, I think I have an idea. We can do this.’"

The EDF was looking for ways to detect leaks of invisible, odorless methane gas from things like oil and natural gas wells. The two engineers — Richter is originally from Germany and Weibring from Sweden — formed the company Quanta3 to develop their idea. 

“We are a garage startup,” Richter said. The device they developed in Richter’s home is the size of moving box, with a laser and some mirrors. It runs on solar power. The lasers detect methane by the way its molecules absorb light. 

“We can tune the color, or the wavelength, very, very precise. So the more molecules you have along the laser line, the more each molecule will eat a little bit of your light,” Weibring said.

Richter has an easy way to explain the science. 

“Imagine the laser being a Pacman of a specific color,” Richter added. “The more it eats of a certain color, it grows fatter and fatter and fatter.”

The fatter the light, the more methane is present. And at high levels, the box can ping an oil or gas company with an e-mail notification or an alarm. It's a much cheaper alert system than how leaks are currently detected.

“Right now, how do we know if there are leaks? People have to manually go around and check and come back at the site from time to time. And that takes them a lot of work, right?” said Weibring. “It’s a waste of money.”

That’s been the big problem, since finding methane leaks has been expensive. But the cost of not finding them might be even higher. 

Methane emissions come from livestock and wetlands, but also from leaks from natural gas and oil wells. As developed nations wean themselves off of coal — which is a major contributor to climate change — and move toward clean solar and wind power, they need something during the transition. Enter natural gas.

Methane is the main component of natural gas. It burns cleaner, but it comes with a big problem.

When it’s burned, natural gas produces carbon dioxide,  a major climate pollutant. But the methane from natural gas itself is the far bigger concern when it escapes from gas and oil wells.  

“It traps 84 times more heat than carbon dioxide in the short-term. That’s why we realized that the world needs a smoke alarm for methane,” said Aileen Nowlan with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Spread over a century, methane’s global warming potential is 28 to 36 times greater than that of carbon dioxide, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. And while scientists warn of the dangers of methane, the Trump Administration is trying to relax the rules for methane emissions on public lands. 

“What’s important is that ending oil and gas methane emissions is one of the most cost-effective and impactful climate solutions anywhere. Just using the solutions, that are no net costs, would have the same impact as closing all of China’s coal power plants,” Nowlan said.

That’s why the EDF held its contest. The grand prize for the best methane detectors was zero dollars. Instead, the two most successful entries were connected to oil and gas companies.

“This relationship is actually very rare and harder to get than money,” Nowlan said.

Shell and the Norwegian company Statoil are both now trying out Richter and Weibring’s pilot devices. (Many oil and gas companies don't even report methane leaks, according to the EDF.) In some cases, just knowing there’s a leak is the hard part.

“If you see a leak around a pipeline or a joint or a fitting, then they are very easy to fix. That’s a matter of a wrench and a few hours,” said Dr. Desikan Sundararajan, a principal researcher with Statoil.

If issues occur in the oil or gas reservoir, that’s a more complicated picture and much harder to fix. But good, cheap detectors can at least help spot the problem.

And preventing those leaks isn’t just about protecting the environment; escaping methane means escaping profits. Sundararajan said that’s one reason Statoil got involved in the effort to develop cheaper detectors. 

“The initial implantations of any technologies are very expensive. But then we need pioneers like Statoil and other companies to come forward and do more and more of these technology pilots where the cost of the technology then can be driven down,” Sundararajan said.

Engineers Richter and Weibring have come a long way already. 

“So that was the challenge: how to make it much, much cheaper and still good enough,” Weibring said.

In the four years they’ve been working on the project, they’ve transformed equipment costing hundreds of thousands of dollars into portable devices that cost a few thousand.

“The technology today is there to solve the leak problem,” Richter said. “It is now up to the oil and gas industry as a whole to adapt it, to embrace it.”

Other engineers and startups are also looking to tackle the methane problem with different types of lasers or technology such as drones to measure methane emissions over areas bigger than a single well. Their solutions might still seem pricey. But when you factor in the long-term costs of climate change, these small contraptions  start to look much more like a bargain.

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI