The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) laboratory is developing a methane leak detection system for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).

In a statement Tuesday, SwRI, a nonprofit based in San Antonio, said the system is being designed to work autonomously and in real-time, and will find small methane leaks that are difficult to detect with current technology. The laboratory said it will combine machine learning with passive optical sensing to identify small emissions using its Smart Methane Leak Detection technology (SLED/M).

SwRI expects to develop SLED/M for deployment across the entire natural gas supply chain, from extraction and storage to transportation and distribution.

“There are systems that can detect large methane leaks, but it is challenging to effectively detect and mitigate small leaks unless you have inspection personnel with sensor devices stationed 24/7 across pipelines and other energy infrastructure,” said Maria Araujo, a manager in SwRI’s Intelligent Systems Division. “To broaden the industrial use of this technology, there should be no need for a human in the loop.

“We want a methane detection system that will detect small emissions within a few minutes with very few false alarms.”

The two-phase project is being funded through a $798,000 grant from the DOE and will take place over the next 18 months. During the first phase, SwRI said it will apply its liquid spill-detection capabilities to develop the methane detection system. The task will be accomplished by “using integrated optical sensors and an embedded processing unit to enable machine learning through algorithms that recognize patterns and trigger alarms during leak events,” SwRI said.

The second phase of the project will focus on integrating and field testing the system, and to document and demonstrate the system’s capabilities within a controlled environment.

SwRI said it has developed automated leak detection systems for other clients, including a solar-powered solution for the Methane Detectors Challenge (MDC), a multi-organizational collaboration that aims to curb methane emissions in the gas-producing sector.

In 2013, researchers from the SwRI told the National Groundwater Association that the greatest threat from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is wastewater injection wells (see Shale Daily, Jan. 2, 2014). The next year, in conjunction with the MDC, the laboratory volunteered to test methane detection systems created by engineers and other inventors at no cost (see Daily GPI, April 3, 2014).

SwRI has also worked with the University of Texas at San Antonio on developing biochar, an agricultural waste product that attracts and retains water (see Shale Daily, Sept. 10, 2014). Researchers believe biochar may be a safe and inexpensive way to treat flowback water from fracking operations.