Methane: As concerns rise about this greenhouse gas, CU startup works to plug leaks | CU Boulder Today

Methane: As concerns rise about this greenhouse gas, CU startup works to plug leaks | CU Boulder Today

Title image: A laser-emitting device atop a tower at a purely natural fuel operation scans the landscape for methane leaks. (Credit rating: Casey Cass/CU Boulder)

Sean Coburn walks down a dusty grime road in Greeley, Colorado, flanked by a scene that is getting extra popular in this metropolis at the edge of the Entrance Range—rows and rows of tanks, pipes, stacks and other hallmarks of the oil and gasoline industry.

The engineer, who acquired his doctorate from CU Boulder and now splits time among the university and a firm called LongPath Technologies, is carrying a flame retardant jacket, cumbersome boots and a hard hat. He wants them on this internet site. Right here, operators choose raw and really flammable oil and natural gasoline, the latter generally composed of methane, and system it into a variety that folks can use to heat their residences or travel their vehicles.

But Coburn is heading for some thing else: a metal tower, about 50-toes-tall with what appears like a security digicam on leading.

“We pipe the laser light up from there,” explained Coburn, pointing at a cupboard at the foundation of the tower. “Then we shoot it at unique targets all-around the website.”

As he talks, the cabinet beeps, and the laser emitter at its finish commences to flip, sweeping above the landscape.

The tower is part of an bold undertaking from scientists at LongPath and CU Boulder. They’re employing new laser technological know-how to do what other systems have struggled to do for decades: detect all-natural fuel, which is invisible to the eye, leaking from pipes at web-sites like this, in genuine time.

Methane is a strong greenhouse gasoline, reported Greg Rieker, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at CU Boulder. He testified prior to the U.S. Residence of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology June 8 about the issue of methane emissions. He mentioned that methane can trap just about 80 situations a lot more heat in the environment than carbon dioxide, and analysis implies that escaped methane from oil and gas operations may perhaps engage in a a lot bigger role in local climate alter than previously considered.

LongPath is trying to plug that supply. The company’s towers shoot lasers above miles of terrain to sniff out even the faintest whiffs of methane in the air. So far, the firm has put in 23 of them covering just about 300,000 acres in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado. Rieker believes the engineering could be a win-earn for the West: Slowing down emissions of this risky gas, whilst also cutting down expenditures for an business that employs tens of thousands.

The story of this technologies, known as a twin frequency comb laser spectrometer, dates back to the 1990s when a physicist at CU Boulder and JILA named Jan Corridor 1st formulated frequency comb lasers to explore the working of atoms—and earned a Nobel Prize in the approach.

“Now, we’re in a position to use those people exact strategies and, with just one of these techniques, mitigate about 80 million cubic ft of methane emissions for each calendar year,” said Rieker who co-founded LongPath in 2017.

A truck labeled "LongPath Technologies" parks near a tower

A LongPath Technologies van visits a pure gas facility in Greeley. (Credit history: Casey Cass/CU Boulder)

Considering little

Scott Diddams was section of all those early times of frequency comb lasers. He was a postdoctoral researcher working with Hall at JILA, a joint investigation institute concerning CU Boulder and the Nationwide Institute of Standards and Technological innovation (NIST), to probe quantum physics—or the mysterious workings of incredibly, extremely small items.

The researchers weren’t imagining about methane hovering in excess of oil fields at the time. In its place, they employed their lasers to evaluate how quick atoms tick. To make an atomic clock, Diddams described, physicists to start with glow laser gentle at a cloud of atoms, offering them a kick so that they flip among distinctive electricity stages at a staccato pace. Hall’s team invented frequency combs to support rely out that rhythm.

“Atoms tick practically a quadrillion instances per next,” mentioned Diddams, now a professor in the Section of Electrical, Personal computer and Power Engineering. “You have to have a actually unique instrument to depend these cycles.”

Frequency combs had been exclusive. Standard lasers, like the pointers in any lecture hall, can only produce just one style of mild: say, purple mild or environmentally friendly light-weight. But these new lasers could develop hundreds or even millions of hues of infrared light at the exact time—an total rainbow inside of a one beam.

Corridor and German scientist Theodor Hänsch took home a Nobel in 2005 “for their contributions to the development of laser-based mostly precision spectroscopy, which includes the optical frequency comb procedure.”

By the time Rieker joined CU Boulder in 2013, he and Diddams have been already wanting to know what else frequency combs could do.

Quantum comb

Greg Reiker and Scott Diddam in the lab

Greg Rieker (remaining) functions with a colleague in his lab at CU Boulder. (Credit: Casey Cass/CU Boulder)

methane detection

Comb-like spikes on a computer screen illustrate measurements of methane, water and carbon dioxide. (Credit score: Casey Cass/CU Boulder)

Scientists at an oil and gas site

A technician displays methane at an oil and gasoline site in Colorado. (Credit rating: Casey Cass/CU Boulder)

At LongPath’s places of work in Boulder, Coburn and his colleagues open up a personal computer window demonstrating the info coming in from the procedure in Greeley. The graph exhibits a squiggly readout with sharp spikes like the teeth in a comb.

Each and every tooth corresponds to a shade in the team’s frequency comb laser (for this reason, the identify). Rieker discussed that if you glow 1 of these units into a cloud of fuel, the molecules within will absorb some of people colors but not all of them. In other words, molecules will leave an imprint on the laser gentle, pretty much like urgent your thumb to a glass.

“Each of these different molecules absorbs a different pattern of light-weight,” Rieker claimed. “Methane has one pattern. Water and carbon dioxide have a further.”

Frequency comb know-how can go through those people molecular fingerprints to tell you exactly what kinds of molecules are existing in a patch of air.

Or that was the idea in the mid-2000s. Rieker and experts from NIST took about a 10 years to make it actuality. 1st the workforce experienced to shrink these lasers, which could fill overall rooms, down to the dimensions of a suitcase—then design them to endure the extremes of Colorado winters.

“We tested what transpired when our laser froze,” Rieker claimed. “We broke it just about every way we could believe of breaking it.”

Traditionally, he stated, oil and gasoline operators look for leaks by using exclusive movie cameras or by employing airplanes to fly overhead. Frequency comb lasers, in contrast, can operate 24/7 with out a one human concerned.

For 11 months in 2017 and 2018, the crew set its technology to the check with funding from the U.S. Department of Electrical power. Rieker and his colleagues deployed one of their lasers at a normal gasoline storage facility in California. The laser, then mounted to the roof of a trailer, was capable to detect methane leaks around numerous miles of terrain and at an extraordinary precision of just a few sections for every billion. Mainly because the system ran all the time, they have been able to detect 12 moments additional methane for every thirty day period on regular than traditional resources noticed.

“After that, it unfold by word of mouth,” Rieker stated. “Because these points do the job.”

From atoms to stars

Around the very same time, Rieker co-founded LongPath Technologies with his then research experts Coburn and Robbie Wright, and Caroline Alden, a study scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Analysis in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at CU Boulder.

In the commencing, it was gradual-going. To start LongPath and protected initial funding, Rieker and his colleagues labored with Venture Partners, the university’s commercialization arm for campus scientists. The company’s 1st workforce labored out of rented room in Rieker’s basement lab on campus.

“Instead of the startup-in-a-garage, we ended up the startup-in-a basement. Then when COVID hit we all had been functioning out of our very own basements,” reported Wright, now vice president of engineering at LongPath. “But in the previous 12 months we lastly bought our 1st focused office, and we’ve scaled from obtaining 3 deployments out with a single client to 23 deployments with 17 shoppers.”

Oil and fuel executives have appear all over to these lasers, in portion due to the fact they can help you save companies income, Rieker added—even a regime leak, he explained, could cost operators thousands of bucks if they do not catch it right absent.

He’s now seeking to replicate the success of LongPath.

In 2021, Rieker signed on to guide a new hard work on campus termed the Quantum Engineering Initiative, which seeks to renovate other, essential scientific discoveries into true tools that you can hold in your hand. Graduate students in the engineer’s lab are not finished with frequency comb lasers, possibly. This yr, researchers will set up a single around a patch of frozen soil close to Fairbanks, Alaska. They are hoping to evaluate how substantially methane fuel leaks out from that soil as it warms for the reason that of weather adjust.

Graduate college student David Yun, meanwhile, uses frequency comb lasers for a totally distinctive purpose: To review how hypersonic jet engines suck up and burn up oxygen as they roar to lifetime. Diddams employs a identical established of resources to look for for planets circling stars tens of gentle-a long time from Earth.

“We really want to thrust the limits of the place we can consider this technological know-how,” Yun reported. “We keep pushing to see what is the craziest factor we can do with frequency combs?”

For Rieker, it is a testament to science coming entire circle—from explorations of atomic jitters to a Nobel Prize and even technologies that may quickly make improvements to the lives of day to day Coloradans.

“This is a technological innovation that was created for one thing totally different—for producing much better atomic clocks and other equipment for quantum investigation,” he stated. “Now, we’re building an impression on climate modify.”

As a world leader in local weather, environmental and electrical power exploration, the College of Colorado Boulder is partnering with United Nations Human Rights to co-host the Appropriate Here, Right Now Worldwide Weather Summit in slide 2022. 

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