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Quantum enhanced LIDAR will help reduce environmentally damaging methane leaks from the oil and gas industry

In purely economic terms, methane leaks from well-heads and pipelines cost the oil and gas industry between $6bn and $30bn a year. In the US, methane leaks from the natural gas and petroleum industry are now the number one source of methane emissions, surpassing livestock digestion and landfill. Although it is found in much lower concentrations than carbon dioxide, methane is around 25 times more potent, meaning that it still accounts for 28 percent of the amount of warming caused by carbon dioxide.


Methane is 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and scientists estimate that if just 3.2% of methane brought up from wells leaks rather than being burnt, natural gas becomes even less eco-friendly than coal. In addition to being a significant source of pollution, the energy sector loses more than $30 billion worth of gas annually through accidental methane leaks from well-heads and pipelines. It was estimated in 2020,  that 3.7 per cent of methane produced by fracking for oil in one area of Texas and New Mexico alone, the Permian basin, is being emitted, unburned, into the atmosphere.


Although the largest source of methane emissions is agriculture, responsible for around a quarter of all emissions, the second largest source is the energy sector. This includes emissions from coal, oil, natural gas and biofuels. The main obstacle to stopping leaks from well-heads, storage, and distribution sites is not knowing where and when they are happening and how much is escaping. Often, the largest emission events at these sites are unplanned, intermittent releases, and without continuous, in-situ monitoring, emissions measurements by any other means will provide erroneous emissions estimates that can be too high or too low depending on when periodic monitoring takes place.


The quantum-enabled camera makes complete and continuous monitoring possible for the first time, identifying and quantifying emissions as they occur. A Bristol, UK startup company called Quantum Light Metrology (QLM), has developed a drone-mounted, quantum sensing solution capable of remotely detecting and quantifying minute methane leaks. Launched by Xiao Ai, a former QuantIC researcher from the University of Bristol, the company intends to monitor emissions, especially for the oil and gas industry for a better understanding of outflows that could lead to cost effective mitigating strategies and improved health and safety in this sector.


Murray Reed, CEO of QLM Technology, said: “Whilst the oil and gas majors have pledged to significantly reduce methane emissions in coming years, you can’t manage what you can’t measure; and no-one is measuring methane properly, continuously, and at scale. “The scale of the problem is enormous, with more than half a million active gas wells in North America alone, 2,000 offshore rigs and nearly 1,000 natural gas storage facilities worldwide.  “In the UK alone, we have 24 pipeline compressor stations, which power long-distance natural gas pipes, and hundreds of above ground storage installations. All are leaking at some time.”


Xiao Ai, founder and Chief Technology Officer at QLM said, “After four years of post-doc research developing Laser Radar Lidar for atmospheric sensing of carbon dioxide, I realized, that to reduce carbon emission, we first needed to understand the sources and locations of anthropogenic emissions.“ He added, “QLM’s laser radar is capable of remotely detecting and quantifying the lowest leak rate required by the oil and gas industry, out to a 150-meter operational distance. This brings a 10-fold sensitivity improvement over our closest competitor, which enables a significant performance improvement in scanning and imaging capabilities.”


Quantum technologies exploit the principles of quantum mechanics, which is an understanding of sub-atomic particles, to create advances across industry. QLM’s quantum-enabled gas imaging Lidar camera is one of the first commercially-available products from the £1 billion UK National Quantum Technologies Programme.


Existing laser-based systems for methane quantification utilise complex and costly mirror arrays to reflect light in to a conventional detector.  By contrast, the QLM product uses a quantum single photon avalanche detector (SPAD) which is so sensitive it can detect just a few photons of light and can therefore “see” gas without the need for a mirror. “With quantum technology, we have effectively made the whole world a mirror. This is a major breakthrough, and unlocks our ability to enable gas operators limit the emission of gases, starting with methane, that are having such a devastating impact on our planet,” said Reed.


The quantum single-photon detection of the camera allows for gas plumes to be detected and measured over large physical distances.  The first version of the camera, mounted on a mast, is available for commercial trial this year, and trials involving UAV-mounted cameras are scheduled to begin next year.


QLM’s technology is lightweight, low-powered and capable of delivering an unprecedented 30 miles per hour surveying speed when mounted on a drone. This has potential, especially in the Oil and Gas industry for a better understanding of emissions that could result in cost effective mitigating strategies and improved health and safety measures for the sector.

About Rajesh Uppal

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