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IBM Uses Low-Cost Sensors to Help Address Climate Change Issues

low-cost sensors
In the next five years, networks of sensors like this miniature silicon chip trace-gas spectrometer will help us "see" and manage environmental pollutants. Photo courtesy of IBM Research

Natural gas is considered by many to be a cleaner energy source. The downside to natural gas is the methane that is a primary component. If it leaks into the air—estimates suggest approximately 1-2 percent leakage is common at production sites—it absorbs the sun’s heat and warms the Earth’s atmosphere. Methane is estimated to be the second-largest contributor to global warming, after carbon dioxide.

To address this issue, the Advanced Research Project Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) is partnering with a number of universities, industrial research labs and technology companies to take part in its Innovative Technology to Obtain Reductions (MONITOR) program. IBM has taken a leading role in the program, developing low-cost, highly accurate sensors to detect methane leaks.

As the appropriately last-named William Green, senior manager of the Photonic and Nanoscale Systems Department at IBM Research, describes here, not only do these sensors pick up signs of methane leaks, but they also work in tandem with machine learning and advanced analytics. They help oil and gas companies lessen unintended methane emissions and increase the amount of natural gas they capture and put to market.

IBM Systems Magazine (ISM): What is IBM’s contribution to the ARPA-E MONITOR program’s effort to identify and reduce fugitive methane?
William Green (WG):
Overall, the integrated sensing solution we’re developing at IBM Research will ultimately use novel sensor technology and advanced physical analytics to localize and quantify methane leaks within certain applications in the oil and gas industry.

Why would we want to do that? Well, we hear a lot of about carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, but if you look at methane and how it traps heat in terms of its greenhouse warming potential, it’s actually about 35x more powerful than carbon dioxide over a hundred-year period. So methane can actually rapidly accelerate the greenhouse gas effect when it makes it into the atmosphere. While there are other significant sources of atmospheric methane around today, including agriculture and landfills, the oil and gas industry is really responsible for roughly a third of the total fugitive methane emissions into the environment.

So with that in mind, ARPA-E, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy, funded a program a few years ago challenging the technical community to build low-cost, continuously monitoring end-to-end systems that can detect and localize leaks occurring on natural gas production well pads. By quickly detecting and pinpointing where they are, well pad owner-operators can repair and eliminate leaks, particularly the largest ones, known in the industry as “super-emitters,” before they can have a significant impact.

Academic groups and government agencies have conducted a number of estimates of the total U.S. production of natural gas escaping into the environment. Some of these estimates indicate that as much as 5 percent of the product is actually just leaking into the air. Not only does this have a significant environmental impact, but is also inefficient in industry terms. Companies can leverage an investment into new methane monitoring technologies to help them reduce leakage and recover more product. Being informed about leaks in real-time as they occur will also allow well pad owner-operators to be more aware of potential safety issues.

ISM: What is your team’s specific role in this program?
We proposed the development of an end-to-end leak detection system to ARPA-E that provides 24-7 autonomous and continuous monitoring. The system acquires methane concentration data from a network of point sensors distributed in an optimal way over the well pad. Using accurate physical models and various statistical analysis techniques running both locally at the sensor nodes as well as in the cloud, this data is processed to not only detect the presence of a leak, but also pinpoint its location and the leak rate. These are important pieces of information that eventually go into a cloud-based asset-level interface that an end user, such as a natural gas well pad operator at an oil and gas company, could use to monitor all of their well pads nationwide, understand which ones are operating within limits and learn which ones require a repair crew to address a leak.

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at



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