Sensor Network Could Change How Methane Emissions Are Detected

AUSTIN, Texas – A first-of-its-kind network of sensors for monitoring emissions across an oil and gas production region may soon revolutionize the way methane leaks are found.

The United States has become the world’s largest producer of natural gas and a major exporter. However, methane, the main constituent of natural gas, has a role as a greenhouse gas in climate warming. A new partnership led by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and bringing together Environmental Defense Fund, ExxonMobil, Gas Technology Institute (GTI) and Pioneer Natural Resources Company, aims to demonstrate a novel approach to measuring methane emissions from oil and gas production sites, using advanced technologies to help minimize releases into the atmosphere.

The collaboration, named Project Astra, will establish a sensor network that will leverage advances in methane-sensing technologies, data sharing and data analytics to provide near-continuous monitoring. A potential application of the sensor network is to allow producers and regulators to find and fix significant methane releases at or below the cost of current monitoring technologies, many of which measure emissions only on an annual or semi-annual basis.

“Project Astra is an ambitious and innovative collaboration to develop comprehensive, continuous monitoring of methane emissions, a potential new capability that can be achieved with industry-wide participation,” said Staale Gjervik, senior vice president of unconventional at ExxonMobil. “ExxonMobil is committed to the development of technologies and partnerships that advance cost-effective solutions to reduce methane emissions.”

The first phase of network development, which will test a wide range of methane sensing technologies and assess their ability to operate autonomously, will be conducted in the Permian Basin region of West Texas. The full network will be designed in virtual reality, using a simulation of oil and gas production in greater West Texas.

The simulation, created at UT Austin, will model minute by minute the concentrations of methane and other components of natural gas that would be expected in the atmosphere under normal operations and when unintended emissions are present. This simulated atmosphere, to be completed by the end of 2020, will be used to identify the types and locations of methane sensors that would be most effective in collecting data. It will also be used to evaluate methods for analyzing the sensor data to locate unintended emissions.

“This project has incredible potential and will open new pathways for companies to find and reduce methane emissions from the more than 1 million existing oil and gas wells in the United States,” said David Allen, lead investigator on the project, professor of chemical engineering at UT Austin and the director of the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Center for Energy and Environmental Resources. “Cost-effective, high-frequency monitoring for these assets will require innovative and disruptive techniques. The goal of Project Astra is to design, develop and deploy a prototype, next-generation monitoring network.”

The project team will release the simulated data set as the basis for a Digital Methane Challenge – an initiative funded by UT Austin’s Energy Institute with the goal of catalyzing innovation in network designs. When a successful design is demonstrated in the simulated atmosphere, the network sensing concept will be tested in the Permian Basin.

Technical and policy expertise for developing advanced methane solutions that can improve environmental performance is provided by Environmental Defense Fund. Industry participants in the study are providing university researchers access to production facilities and operational data.

“Pioneer cares deeply about our environmental impact, and we have a long-term focus on reducing emissions in our operations,” said Mark Berg, executive vice president of corporate operations for Pioneer Natural Resources. “We look forward to participating in Project Astra. It offers significant opportunities to advance technology in detecting and reducing methane emissions and help our industry address this critical issue.”

The findings and analyses of the project, which will be published in peer-reviewed journals and made publicly available, could help guide how companies, states and the federal government measure, monitor and manage methane emissions in the future.

“Reducing methane emissions is a serious issue, requiring much faster and more aggressive industry action. Continuous detection could be a game changer for the entire industry to eradicate methane emissions – and for policymakers to have the data needed to verify those reductions,” said Matt Watson, Energy Vice President at Environmental Defense Fund.

“Success in Project Astra will help accelerate deployment of innovative solutions to find and fix leaking equipment faster and more effectively at local-area scale,” said Paula Gant, senior vice president of corporate strategy and innovation at Gas Technology Institute (GTI). “We envision creating interconnected networks of sensors monitoring emissions over large areas that feed data into decision tools that can speed repair actions.”

Support for this work, including support from additional organizations that are participating in individual components of Project Astra, is described at the project website: https://dept.ceer.utexas.edu/ceer/astra. Further disclosures by David Allen, professor in UT’s McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering and the principal investigator of this research study, have been submitted to The University of Texas at Austin in accordance with its conflict of interest policies.

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