As natural gas pipelines beneath our cities get older, small natural gas leaks are increasingly becoming a serious environmental problem. Taking advantage of the fact that Google's Street View cars are constantly roaming our urban corridors, a novel project has incorporated methane-sensing equipment into the cars so accurate data can be generated to better target pipeline repairs.

While major gas leaks are often quickly fixed, small to medium leaks can go unnoticed for months or sometimes years. These methane leaks are a significant contributor to climate change as well as a needless waste of precious natural resources. The Environmental Defense Fund has joined forces with Google Earth Outreach and scientists from Colorado State University CSU to address this problem.

The development of mobile infrared laser methane analyzer technology over the past decade is what has made this new project possible. Using a set of algorithms and protocols developed at CSU, these instruments can accurately measure plumes of methane – the main component of natural gas – and allow the researchers to screen out false positives, such as methane emitted from landfill or nearby power plants.

After preliminary testing in research vehicles driven around the CSU campus and Christman air field in Fort Collins, Colorado, the technology was installed in several Google Street View cars. The cars generated several maps showing hot spots identifying natural gas leak points across the pilot cities, with the three areas with older, corrosion-prone piping (Boston, Staten Island and Syracuse) registering 25 times more methane leakages than those areas with modernized pipelines (Burlington and Indianapolis).

"This is a huge challenge that almost nobody had been thinking about," says Professor Joe von Fischer, lead scientist on the project from CSU. "Now we're finding out just how widespread these leaks are."

As a damaging greenhouse gas, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. These often imperceptible gas leaks in cities may not be immediately dangerous to the community, but they do contribute to the damaging volume of climate changing emissions in our atmosphere.

"The faster you fix them, the bigger the environmental benefits are," says Professor von Fischer. "But utilities and regulators didn't have the data to focus their efforts. That's where we come in. Our goal is to make it faster, cheaper and easier to find and measure methane leaks from natural gas lines to help accelerate crucial repairs."

A New Jersey utility company has already approved nearly US$1 billion worth of pipeline upgrades with direct input from the early pilot research. The team currently has four Google Street View cars outfitted with methane sensors roaming the streets and hopes to deploy the system across more cities in the United States.

The team refined its methane sensing apparatus across five pilot studies, recently publishing the results in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Take a closer look at the methane-sensing system the team developed in the video below.

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