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NETL-Supported Project Develops First-of-Its-Kind Gas Sensor for Early Warning Detection
The sensor, sensor data, and field-testing images

University of New Mexico (UNM) and SensorComm Technologies Inc., with support from NETL, have developed a first-of-its-kind field-deployable technology that can accurately sense, identify and quantify the presence of natural gas as an early warning system for leakage, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural gas is one of the largest energy resources in the United States. Due to a myriad of variables, leaks can develop in the infrastructure needed to produce, gather, store, transport and distribute natural gas, emitting methane into the atmosphere. Detecting these infrastructure-related leaks can be difficult because of the typical presence of natural sources of methane in the atmosphere (e.g., livestock, wetlands and other sources).

“In a field test, the UNM-led team conducted the first-ever demonstration of an advanced sensor with an Internet of Things (IoT) network for natural gas emissions detection,” said NETL’s Joe Renk, who manages the project. “The researchers used additive manufacturing techniques to prototype ceramic mixed potential sensors and created an IoT network that connected the sensors to the readout, heater control and data analysis over Wi-Fi and cellular networks, making the setup lightweight and field mobile.”

The sensing package was field tested at the Colorado State University Methane Emissions Technology Evaluation Center’s buried pipeline simulated testbed. This field test showed that, using the team’s sensor technology, the concentration of methane could be predicted over a range of 10-3000 parts per million.

“Not only did the team demonstrate this cutting-edge technology was extremely accurate, but they also collected datasets that then were used in an approach to train machine learning algorithms such as artificial neural networks (ANNs),” Renk said. “The ANNs were then integrated into the portable system and demonstrated the ability to not just detect but quantify methane concentration and identify several different sources of methane, including wetlands methane, bovine methane and two types of natural gas (pipeline and wet gas) with greater than 98% accuracy.”   

In addition to the environmental concerns caused by leaking methane, the loss of product can cost industry billions of dollars per year. If sensors such as these are ultimately widely deployed for locating and quantifying natural gas leaks, this will not only help to mitigate climate impacts but also could potentially contribute to lower fuel costs for consumers because less product is lost.

Preventing the loss of product will only increase in importance as the nation begins to move toward a clean hydrogen economy. During this upcoming transition, natural gas infrastructure could be used to transport blends of hydrogen and methane — called hythane.

The research team is already thinking ahead and has initially tested the ability of their sensing technology to identify hythane leaks in the same infrastructure. More testing is planned as the project continues, but early studies indicate that these sensors and the IoT network, enabled by machine learning algorithms, can double as a continuous monitoring solution for hythane as well. Future work beyond this project will focus on transitioning from a prototype scale for the sensors to mass production for commercialization.

NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.