Google Street View Technology Expands to Mapping Methane Leaks

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【Summary】According to the tech giant’s findings, Boston leaks a staggering 1,300 tons of methane per year.

Michael Cheng    Mar 27, 2017 7:25 AM PT
Google Street View Technology Expands to Mapping Methane Leaks

Methane is a dangerous gas commonly found in oil refineries and industrial processing plants. Inhaling concentrated levels of the compound can lead to dizziness, vomiting and asphyxiation. The idea of this type of gas floating around in cities, where people work, eat and socialize, is a huge concern – and Google wants to do something about it.

Earlier this year, Google's Street View division started mapping out methane leaks around the US, specifically Massachusetts, New York (state), Vermont and Indiana. Sensors mounted on the vehicle looked for signs of leaks, as the car performed its usual mapping duties. So far, the researcher's project has been a success, with the results of their findings published in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology.

"We don't have good numbers about how much methane emissions from cities contribute to the overall US anthropogenic natural gas footprint," explained Joseph von Fischer, biology professor at Colorado State and lead author of the study.

Methane Everywhere

Methane is a colorless, invisible gas. These characteristics make it extremely difficult to locate and track leaks, especially when strong winds are present. Unfortunately, pipelines that distribute methane under cities are old and outdated. Replacing a mile-long pipe, according to City Lab, could cost up to $2 million. The combination of high costs and daunting requirements has caused businesses to abandon maintenance work on methane pipes.

So is there really methane gas leaking around cities across the US? In some locations, yes. For example, Boston residents may be surprised to find out that Google found hundreds of low-leak points scattered around the city. There were also a handful of moderate and high leaks plotted on long roadways. According to the tech giant's findings, Boston leaks a staggering 1,300 tons of methane per year!

By comparison, Indianapolis only had four low-leak points and no medium and high-leak areas. It is also important to know that the city had overhauled its methane pipes in the 1980s, which resulted in cleaner emissions. The Environmental Defense Fund released some of the results of the project online.

Google's Smart Sensors

The technology behind the sensors that detect methane is interesting. All three Google Street View cars were equipped with high-precision CH4 analyzers installed at the front of the bumper – close to the ground. GPS components provided location data in real-time and a 2-D anemometer was used to deliver wind speed and direction information. During operation, the smart sensors were able to sniff out leaks as far as 65 feet (20 meters).

Another way to monitor methane is by deploying infrared cameras. This method is widely utilized in industrial facilities, where concentrated levels are likely to be present.

"It's incredibly challenging. The biggest challenge and the major uncertainty is the direction of the wind, which this research addresses," gas researcher Jane Hodgkinson at Cranfield University, who was not involved in the findings, told IBTimes UK.

"It's very possible to miss a very high proportion of gas leaks especially in the urban environment where conditions are very highly turbulent."

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