Researchers at University of Colorado Boulder and Long-Path Technologies have developed lasers that can detect natural gas leaks in real time, mitigating the oil and gas industry’s impact on climate change.
As concerns rise about methane, a CU startup is working toward plugging the leaks. LongPath has developed lasers, called frequency comb lasers, which can sniff out even the faintest traces of methane — and could prove critical in combating climate change. Frequency combs are known for producing thousands of colors of infrared light at once, and since different molecules each absorb different colors, the laser is used to identify each molecule’s fingerprint — which then allows the laser to detect each molecule’s presence in the air. While previous methods for leak detection required operators to look for leaks using video cameras or aerial surveillance, frequency comb lasers are unmanned and can operate 24/7. They were modeled off laser-based precision spectroscopy, initially developed by Colorado physicist Jan Hall to explore how atoms work.
Greenhouse gases like methane are invisible to the naked eye, making it difficult to detect leaks for oil and gas companies. These leaks are harmful to the environment and costly to repair. LongPath’s laser system can mitigate roughly 80 million cubic feet of methane emissions per year.
Currently, 23 lasers are in use in the U.S., covering nearly 300,000 acres in Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. This year, researchers will install one over a patch of frozen soil near Fairbanks, Alaska. They’re hoping to measure how much methane gas leaks out from that soil as it warms because of climate change.