Methane is everywhere on Earth. It’s the main ingredient in the natural gas that powers heating, cooking, and electricity. It’s also a potent greenhouse gas. The presence of methane is also interesting for a different reason: because the biggest source of the gas on Earth is bacterial life. That means when NASA planetary scientists caught a glimpse of it on Mars, it merited a closer look.

The Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS), installed on the Curiosity rover, was designed to measure traces of methane, carbon dioxide, and water vapor. It works by shooting lasers into a measurement chamber filled with Martian air and measuring absorption of light at specific wavelengths. This demonstration of the spectrometer used visible lasers, as opposed to the infrared lasers on the real device.

The first question, explained Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientist Lance Christensen, was whether the methane was really there. “When you use a telescope on Earth looking at Mars, you’re looking through our atmosphere, which has methane in it. There’s always a bit of uncertainty whether what you think is on Mars is really there. So, the next logical step: the next time you land a rover on Mars, why don’t you sniff for it?” A team at JPL, led by Chris Webster, built a new instrument — a tunable laser spectrometer (TLS) — that can detect even minute traces of methane, measured in parts per trillion, as well as carbon dioxide and water vapor, and installed it on the Curiosity rover. Every month or so, the rover ingests some Martian air and analyzes it with the TLS.

Previous space-ready spectrometers weren’t powerful enough, and none of the very sensitive Earth-based instruments were small enough in size, weight, or power consumption. JPL was able to use new and improved lasers, detectors, and electronics to build the tiny and powerful TLS. “That enabled us to shrink the entire system while maintaining the same level of accuracy and precision,” said Christensen.

After designing the TLS for Mars, JPL engineers adapted it for use on Earth. SeekOps licensed the technology and now manufactures handheld and car-mounted sensor systems, as well as offering methane-detection services with drone-mounted sensors.

For methane, a laser needs to be tuned to the mid-infrared range, and NASA had done quite a bit of design on the micro-structure of mid-infrared lasers to make them more efficient. After Webster’s team built the TLS, Christensen’s role was to validate the same technique for Earth applications and demonstrate it to industry because JPL knew that the Mars sniffer would also be useful to the natural gas industry.

In the end, Christensen largely redesigned the TLS for Earth applications. He wanted something that could be mounted on drones and that could run its analysis 10 times a second. In 2013, he teamed with the Pipeline Research Council International to test a handheld version of his methane sniffer but he knew the commercial possibilities were bigger and that the drone-based version could work even better.

Andrew Aubrey, who worked with Christensen on this project, also saw big commercial potential. He brought in funding from major oil and gas companies and coordinated and led field campaigns to demonstrate sensor performance. By 2016, there was interest in a commercial version. That’s when he and his JPL colleague spun off the technology to meet demand for emission-detection services as well as sensor manufacturing. He licensed the sensor technology from JPL and created Pasadena, CA-based SeekOps in 2017.

“Companies hire us to go out and inspect their well pads where they’re producing oil and natural gas,” Aubrey said. “We’re able to tell them exactly where the process emissions and leak locations are.” SeekOps also inspects distribution stations and metering stations downstream from the well, to see where any loss might be happening. Because of the JPL-developed sensor and the efficiency of monitoring by drone, SeekOps is able to do a more comprehensive job compared to traditional leak-detection operations in about a third of the time. In fact, a full well-pad inspection can take as little as 15 minutes using the SeekOps system, which is 1,000 times more sensitive than competing technologies.

The company’s vehicle-mounted system, which also includes a wind sensor and transmits results in real time to a tablet mounted near the driver’s seat, can continually inspect for leaks as technicians drive. Although these systems don’t detect leak sources as comprehensively as aerial sweeps, they are still useful to identify potential problem areas during day-to-day driving operations.

As the tundra warms, more swamps form, and those swamps emit methane. “Having this inexpensive system, it can be used 24/7 over large areas,” said Christensen, and could provide useful data for scientists hoping to learn more about just what’s going on in those swamps and, by extension, our atmosphere.

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