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Local scientists develop methane sensing laser device

It's invisible to the naked eye and can be dangerous.

A team of local scientists has developed a new way to detect methane gas leaks in Colorado.

“What makes methane such a hard gas to detect is that when it comes out of the ground, it's completely colorless, completely odorless,” explained Greg Rieker, the CU engineer and principal investor behind the research. “And there’s 40,000 wells out here in eastern Colorado alone. So there [is] a lot of leaks, small leaks distributed around.”

Small leaks, according to Rieker, mean wasted material and lost money for oil and gas companies.

“It’s also releasing a very potent greenhouse gas, which can affect our climate,” he said.

There are also safety concerns. Gas leaks can be dangerous, like the methane gas that contributed to the Firestone explosion in 2017.

The technology, a dual frequency comb spectrometer, is based off Nobel Prize winning science first developed at CU Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

For the methane detection, researchers placed a telescope transceiver in the fields near Platteville. From that telescope, an infrared laser scans the field over the distance of a mile or more and bounces off retro-reflectors located near different well pads.

“We look at the light that comes back and we can tell how much has been absorbed by methane,” Rieker said. “And that tells us how much methane is in the air over that laser beam path.”

The system can find tiny traces of methane, as small as one part per billion. Rieker said that’s about the same size as a few drops of water in an Olympic sized swimming pool.

“It’s very, very sensitive technology, [over] very large areas,” he explained. “So what that means is we can use a single device, spread the cost of that device over a large number of wells and turn that around to the oil and gas companies and give them a cheap monitoring service.”

The team behind the technology also includes scientists from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Rieker said the project has many Colorado connections.

“We’ve really taken a Colorado-born technology, this laser-frequency cone which was a Nobel Prize at the University of Colorado that used to be a big sprawling, very expensive device and we’ve engineering it down, with a great team of Coloradans, into a small box and we can bring it out to the field and then solve a problem for a very Colorado-based industry,” he said.