A "breathalyzer," similar to systems used to check alcohol levels in drivers, is one of the breakthrough methane detection technologies selected Thursday to advance in a collaboration between seven U.S. natural gas and oil producers and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

The Methane Detectors Challenge, launched in April, attracted 20 companies and university research teams that were tasked with finding the best -- and most cost-efficient -- solutions for continuous methane detection (see Daily GPI, April 3). The five selected projects now move to laboratory and field testing, with potential pilots by producer sites in 2015. Commercialization of one or more of the innovations could be in 2016.

Apache Corp., BG Group, Hess Corp., Noble Energy Corp. and Southwestern Energy Co. were the original collaborators with EDF; Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and a unit of Royal Dutch Shell plc are now on board as well.

Collaborating with the producers "is one of the most exciting things about this project," said EDF's Ben Ratner, who manages corporate engagement initiatives on natural gas. He spoke with NGI on Wednesday. The methane detection project "is innovative on a couple of levels. One, of course, is that we're catalyzing individual technology approaches in trying to get a step-change improvement in how methane monitoring is done…On the other level…is this cross-sector collaborative approach.

"We have environmental groups, oil and gas companies, other independent experts, together with technology innovators and together we can put together all of the pieces to get this problem solved in a really creative, pragmatic way." EDF has become a frequent partner with the U.S. energy industry, as it works to parlay its quest for environmental protection with oil and gas production (see Daily GPI, Aug. 7).

Projects selected by EDF and the producers group to move to the independent testing phase are:

  • Honeywell International Inc. subsidiary RAE Systems offered an integrated system adapted from a handheld meteorological sensor now used in vehicles to detect high alcohol levels in drivers;
  • The University of Colorado Boulder's research team designed a sensor network on a single circuit board;
  • Oakland University and Michigan State University -- both located in Michigan -- collaborated on an electrochemical sensor solution with a target cost of $30;
  • China's Dalian Actech is working with California investment firm Foller & Associates on an infrared laser-based system now used to sense natural gas in Chinese coal mines; and
  • Quanta3, a technology startup founded by a Boulder, CO-based research engineer, built a low-cost methane-specific laser-based system that doesn't require direct contact for detection.

The exploration and production companies "have been very pragmatic and productive so far, and we look forward to continuing to work with them," Ratner said.

Testing is to begin in October in San Antonio at the independent Southwest Research Institute's laboratory. Additional laboratory and field testing is planned early next year "and we are aspiring to begin industry pilots in very late 2015," Ratner said.

"There's no question that it's a fast-track process. There's an urgent need from a climate perspective and a business perspective to really advance technology in this space. So we're moving forward with great urgency."

The energy industry leaders "are increasingly recognizing the seriousness of the methane issue as public scrutiny on it rises. We're starting to see some industry leaders being more proactive...on the technology collaboration and the scientific collaboration...

"Even one thing that's more critical is developing smart, sound policy to level the playing field and get methane emissions under control."

EDF's Steven Goldman, who coordinates marketing efforts for corporate partnerships, said all five technologies possibly could make the grade and move to commercialization.

"It's an impressive spread of technology among companies and research teams of all levels," he said. "It's all very promising," Goldman told NGI. "The other interesting piece is the types of technology being employed," Goldman said. RAE Systems is "the most well-heeled," but researchers with much less funding have offered impressive innovations as well.

"What we are seeing across these selections is a reuse of technology, taking one technology from one implementation to another," Goldman said.

The University of Colorado Boulder's research team, for instance, developed a circuit board using "cheap, off-the-shelf sensors," Ratner said. "There are a bunch of different ways to skin a cat and there's a bunch of different ways to detect methane emissions..."

Those innovations making the final grade would be able to do continuous methane detection, according to Goldman. Many systems now offer point-in-time sensors, while some detectors use stationary monitoring. The innovations expected to be commercialized "would offer wireless monitoring to allow continuous tracking."

"Anadarko prides itself on being a leader in the control and reduction of emissions wherever we operate," said David McBride, vice president for health safety and environment. "This requires [that] we evaluate and implement proven methods of controlling and measuring emissions, as we continuously strive to improve our operational performance through sound science and technology.

"To that end, the diverse technologies being tested through the Methane Detectors Challenge hold real promise, and we look forward to the next phase of this process."