The project aims to help regulators effectively prioritize repairs for failing natural gas lines.Google's Street View camera cars are now operating with new technology to help map methane leaks.The primary component in natural gas, methane is a greenhouse gas said to be 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, according to project partners at Colorado State University.
With just four Street View cars outfitted with methane detection equipment, the project has already produced leak maps of Boston; Burlington, Vermont; Dallas; Indianapolis; Los Angeles; Mesa, Arizona; Pittsburgh; Staten Island; and Syracuse.
Nor surprisingly, the cars have detected more leaks in urban environments with older gas distribution lines buried relatively close to the surface. Boston, Syracuse and Staten Island averaged 25 times more methane per kilometer than Burlington and Indianapolis.
"Now we're finding out just how widespread these leaks are," said project head Joe von Fischer, a biology professor at CSU. "The faster you fix them, the bigger the environmental benefits are. But utilities and regulators didn't have the data to focus their efforts."
Rather than relying on complex lab analysis using gas chromatography, the Street View cars employ a much simpler infrared laser system that can log methane data in real-time. CSU researchers are said to be working on a cloud platform to host the data, which includes around 2,000 points per minute for each vehicle.
The team estimates that the largest eight percent of leaks represent around 30 percent of pipeline emissions.