Truck-mounted methane detection technology tested at the Alberta Methane Field Challenge. Photo: Tung Bui.

The Alberta Methane Field Challenge

Canada leads with competition to develop new methane detection technologies that will help position Canada as global cleantech leader.

Want to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions? Think methane.

Methane is by some estimates a 25 times more powerful greenhouse gas (GHG) than carbon dioxide—meaning that a single molecule of methane in the atmosphere traps 25 times as much heat over its lifetime as a single molecule of carbon dioxide. Overall, there’s far less methane in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide—however a key to reducing man-made GHGs is to find and target methane emissions where they exist.

It’s a particular challenge for oil and natural gas operations where methane can sometimes be released in the form of leaks or processes. Canadian companies are working on a variety of programs and technologies to help reduce or eliminate methane emissions at oil and natural gas sites. However, step one is finding those emissions in the first place—methane is a colourless, essentially invisible gas.

That’s where the Alberta Methane Field Challenge comes in.

A collaborative venture between industry, the Alberta Government and the Alberta Energy Regulator, it’s a competition to test new methane detection technologies. It aims to find out which ones work best.

According to Arvind Ravikumar, associate professor of energy engineering from the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, technologies currently being used for methane detection and quantification are stuck in the 1970s. Ravikumar is part of the research team helping lead the Alberta Methane Field Challenge.

The good news, notes Ravikumar, is that a raft of new, more effective and efficient technologies are in rapid development by companies around the world in response to the climate change challenge.

The Alberta Methane Field Challenge takes about 10 of the most promising of these new methane detection technologies and tests them in the field. The aim is to see which work the best under real-world conditions.

Ground-based methane detecting cameras and sensors, as well as ones mounted on trucks and drones are being tested at the Alberta Methane Field Challenge. Photo: Tung Bui.

Notes Ravikumar, “A technology can work great in a lab setting, but getting it out into the field and having it operate under real conditions with constraints of oil and gas operations, of weather, and a whole host of other issues is critically important to understand how this technology works and how cost-effective it will be compared to current approaches.”

The technologies have been developed by clean-tech startups, many of which are based in Canada. In fact, Ravikumar believes Canada has a unique opportunity to become a global leader in these kinds of clean-tech innovations. Ravikumar notes that some reports estimate that clean-tech is poised to become a $23 trillion industry in coming years.

Arvind Ravikumar, associate professor of energy engineering from the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, is helping lead the Alberta Methane Field Challenge.

That could mean jobs and economic growth for Canada if it continues to establish itself as a leader in this field. Ravikumar sees the Alberta Methane Field Challenge as both a vital step in the technical development of key technologies, as well as a way to “talk about how big of an opportunity this is in terms of getting these new technologies and innovation into the market.”

Ravikumar, who calls climate change an “existential crisis” is passionately committed to the idea that industry can work with governments and regulators to find economically viable solutions that deal with GHG emissions.

“The oil and gas industry – I speak with operators a lot, both in Canada and the United States and I know that many of them, if not all of them, are concerned about sustainability,” says Ravikumar. “They want to reduce emissions from their operations and they are for sensible regulations to limit emissions.”

The technologies being tested include a variety of approaches, from hand-held and fixed sensors to sensors mounted on drones and trucks. Phase one of the challenge was held in June 2019 at an oil and natural gas site near Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Subsequent phases will be held in the fall and winter—allowing the technologies to be tested under a variety of weather conditions.

“One of the most important concerns, especially in Canada, is how these technologies perform under different weather conditions,” says Ravikumar, “For example, summer is very different from winter. You have certain cameras that look at methane emissions. The problem is those cameras might not work if there is snow on the ground.”

It could be, Ravikumar notes, that ultimately a combination of the sensors being tested could find their way to real-world application.

“It may be the case that some technologies are used in certain conditions and in certain facilities, while other technologies are used in different conditions. That’s the whole advantage of having a lot of different technologies. You can suit the problem to the right solution,” says Ravikumar.

Listen to our Energy Examined podcast interview with Arvind Ravikumar.

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Arvind Ravikumar Associate Professor of Energy Engineering, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, Pennsylvania