Stanford/EDF Launch Mobile Monitoring Challenge With ExxonMobil as a Tech Adviser

Statoil is testing a solar-powered, laser-based continuous methane detection system made by startup company Quanta3 at a production facility in the Eagle Ford shale in Texas. Pictured from left to right are Statoil researchers Andrea Machado Miguens and Desikan Sundararajan, and Quanta3 founder Dirk Richter. Source: John Davidson for EDF.

Following its announcement to expand its methane emissions reduction program, ExxonMobil said it will serve as a technical adviser for the Stanford University and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Mobile Monitoring Challenge (MMC) launched on 6 September.

The competition, cosponsored by Stanford’s Natural Gas Initiative and the EDF, is calling on engineers and technology developers to submit proposals for mobile methane leak monitoring technology by 31 October.

“There’s a school of thought that believes being able to get fast, reliable coverage over a wide swath of infrastructure is potentially the holy grail.” —Ben Ratner, EDF

What is the Challenge and Why Now?

As operators look to contain costs and maximize profits, capturing fugitive methane emissions is increasingly earning attention. Ben Ratner, director at EDF, said, “Methane is lost revenue in the air, a marker of operational inefficiencies and waste, and a threat to the future of natural gas in a decarbonizing world. Long-term thinkers are focusing on their methane emissions today to be better positioned for tomorrow,” adding, “it’s this interest from operators that sends a strong market signal to the technology developers.”

However, lost revenue is not the only driver, said Ratner. “A huge factor is the issue of trust in the industry. Methane, both literally and figuratively, leaks the promise and trust in natural gas as a clean fuel source.”

At a recent investor conference, Ratner said liquefied natural gas (LNG) was a frequently mentioned topic. “There are many in the industry making big bets and big commercial moves on LNG and the story I was hearing was LNG is cheap [currently at $3/million BTU], flexible, and clean. Methane emissions, when uncontrolled at any point in the value chain, undermine that promise as clean. I think it makes business sense that industry leaders are looking at threats to brand and positioning themselves to be part of the solution,” he said.

Stationary Monitoring Challenge Set the Stage

The MMC is a follow-on to the Methane Detectors Challenge (MDC), which grew out of a study EDF did with the University of Texas at Austin with Shell and others to conduct methane measurements at real-world operating facilities.

Based on measurements made directly at 190 production sites throughout the US with access provided by nine participating energy companies, the 2013 UT-Austin study found:

  • The majority of hydraulically fractured well completions, which were sampled during the study, had equipment in place that reduced methane emissions by 99%. Because of this equipment, methane emissions from well completions were 97% lower than calendar year 2011 national emission estimates released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in April 2013.

  • Emissions from certain types of pneumatic devices were 30% to several times higher than current EPA estimates for this equipment; combined, emissions from pneumatics and equipment leaks accounted for about 40% of estimated national emissions of methane from natural gas production.

  • The total methane emissions from natural gas production, from all sources measured in the study, were comparable to the 2013 EPA estimates.

The MDC arose from the EDF/UT-Austin study and aimed to catalyze the development and deployment of stationary, continuous methane monitors. Ratner said, “One of the things we learned is that so-called super-emitters or large leaks were fairly prevalent and accounted for a big share of the overall emissions. A relatively small percentage of sites, a small percentage of leaks, are the big ones causing a lot of problems.

“As we learned more about the problem, we began to get interested in the solutions and when we did a technology landscape assessment we found that really no one was conducting stationary automated monitoring that could detect and notify quickly about large releases of methane,” he said.

Startup Selected by Statoil and Shell for Testing

The MDC drew 20 proposals from all over the world. “We got some of our best applications from companies we never heard of. A startup from Colorado, Quanta3, was one of the strongest proposals. The company didn’t exist before the MDC was announced.”

The company was founded specifically to participate in the MDC. Dirk Richter, founder and CEO of Quanta3, said, “When I heard about the Methane Detectors Challenge and size of the emission problem in the oil and gas sector, I was inspired to put my research background in laser-based systems to work to develop a 24/7 monitoring technology.”

Quanta3’s solar-powered, laser-based sensors are being used for continuous, autonomous methane monitoring in the Eagle Ford by Statoil and in Alberta by Shell. Its systems connect to the cloud and convey alerts using streamlined connectivity that provides immediate notifications when the leak is fixed—even before the personnel completing the physical repair report back to a manager, according to the company.

A handheld prototype of the Quanta3 methane
detection device.
Source: Quanta3.

In August, Shell launched a pilot test using Quanta3’s technology at one of its shale gas sites near Rocky Mountain House in west-central Alberta, Canada. Shell said the system is a new technology that can continuously monitor methane emissions, unlike handheld optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras.

The company said it selected the location for the pilot because it offers the necessary infrastructure to adequately test the technology, and the cold weather conditions in Alberta provide a unique environment to test the system compared to previous pilots. Depending on the outcome of the pilot, next-generation detection technologies could be used to complement OGI cameras and other monitoring tools. These technologies could also have broader applications across the natural gas value chain.

Statoil began testing the Quanta3 technology in January at one of its production facilities in the Eagle Ford. Andrea Machado, senior researcher in Statoil’s shale oil and gas R&D team, said, “Further qualification of this technology will be performed by long-term deployment across various onshore facilities throughout 2017. This initiative can be a step change in how the shale oil and gas industry will monitor fugitive emissions in the future.”

Taking It Mobile

Recognizing that mobile methane monitoring of some sites could be a perfect complement to the continuous, stationary monitoring of others, Stanford University and EDF launched the MMC, seeking new ideas for low-cost, reliable, and valid mobile technologies enabled by plane, helicopter, drone, or truck for methane monitoring. Quick and effective solutions are being sought for the surveying of geographically dispersed facilities.

Ratner said, “There’s a school of thought that believes being able to get fast, reliable coverage over a wide swath of infrastructure is potentially the holy grail.”

What’s Involved

After review of the submitted proposals, EDF and Stanford will consult with ExxonMobil and other advisers for their recommendations on the strongest proposals. The selected teams will be invited to take part in a single-partial blind study of controlled methane releases over a 3-week period in early 2018. Stanford University scientists will design and administer a series of large-scale controlled methane releases at a single location, and study teams will be tasked to find and quantify the methane released. These technologies could either be ground-based (truck-mounted) or aerial (planes, satellites, etc.), with a key feature being the ability to quickly assess leaks while in motion and while off-site. A fraction of the controlled release data will be given to all the teams for calibration purposes, and teams will be expected to estimate the remaining release volumes. Following the experiment, Stanford scientists will independently analyze the estimates from teams and publish the results in open and peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Applications are due 31 October.


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