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Methane is a useful chemical, but not when it leaks into the atmosphere from production or transport of oil and natural gas. A team of scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology developed a technology for detecting methane leaks and thereby getting them cut off earlier. For their work, Nathan Newbury, Kevin Cossel, and Ian Coddington are finalists in this year’s Service to America Medals Program. Ian Coddington joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin with more.
Tom Temin: Dr. Coddington, good to have you on.
Ian Coddington: Good to be here.
Tom Temin: Tell us about this development, because I thought that detecting a particular gas, you know, coming from some source was a relatively routine thing to be able to detect.
Ian Coddington: The trick with greenhouse gases is that the enhancement, you see the increase is only a small fraction of the background right, with for CO2 and methane, there’s so much of it out there. And the way that’s the problem that to say anything meaningful about a source of the gas, you have to be able to see this very small change in a large background. So like LA, if you were to go downwind of LA, you would see a CO2 increase, it’s only about 1 or 2% open background, which of course, is just not that much. The sensor that we built, it’s based on this technology called optical frequency combs, which is sort of this novel laser system that gives you many, many colors simultaneously. And it turns out, you can, we can leverage that to be able to see these gases in the atmosphere with the kind of precision that you need to see these things, explicitly small changes.
Tom Temin: And the NIST team did this in conjunction with some academic researchers?
Ian Coddington: So the frequency comb itself is very much sort of a NIST legacy invention that Jan Hall won the Nobel Prize for back in 2005. And since then, it’s been this hammer that’s kind of looking for a nail, right? It’s, everybody knew it was gonna be this exciting new technology, but nobody really knew how it’s gonna shake out, what it would be useful for. So over the years, our team at NIST has been essentially devoted to a series of applications for frequency combs, and one of those that we considered a number of years ago was applications looking for the extreme oil and gas infrastructure, essentially, methane coming out of wells is increasingly a problem. And at that point, the applications may start to get really applied. And we had this partnership with Greg Rieker at the University of Colorado, who’s the combustion expert. And he kind of came to us and said, hey, could we read this proposal for, you know, the RPE program to see if we could apply this technology in this application space. We wrote the proposal. And we I have to admit, we were, I wish I could say we’re prescient enough to know that it was gonna do as well as it did, you know, in a lot of ways, it was more wildly successful than I ever would have imagined.
Tom Temin: Sure. And does it detect gas that could not be detected before? Or does it just give you greater sensitivity to maybe small leaks that together add up to a lot of leaks?
Ian Coddington: Yeah, so there’s a, there’s a couple of things that it does differently. One, it doesn’t detect gases that you couldn’t see before, but it can detect an array of gases simultaneously. So from the standpoint of understanding environmental air quality, it’s really nice to be able to see that whole manifold because you can see correlations, the gases, and you can know, hey, if I’m seeing CO2 and nitrous oxide together, or CO2 and CO together, I’m probably seeing traffic emissions. And if I can see, you know, methane and ammonia together, I’m probably seeing missions that are coming from agriculture. So the source attribution aspect is really nice with this kind of array of gases again. But for the oil and gas work, the real advantage was that precision, and what that buys you actually is you can not necessarily see a small leak, because it turns out the small leaks are not the important ones, it’s the big ones. But you can see a leak from very far away, you can look from up to five kilometers away and see these leaks, and that there is a huge cost scaling, right, because there’s none of infrastructure that you can monitor with a single device goes roughly is that distance, squared power, so you should expect to see many, many devices with a single system.
Tom Temin: And it sounds like having a greater precision of attribution of source helps in negotiation with the leaker when it comes to what mediation might be required.
Ian Coddington: Exactly the quantification of the emission is a really key part of this whole puzzle. And that was something that was missing 5, 10 years ago, when when the oil and gas infrastructure emission issues started to come up. And, you know, to be fair to the oil and gas industry, they, the technology to understand these leaks, and they understand that quantity that was leaking didn’t exist. So they were a little bit blind to that. And what’s really exciting is that as that technology has been developed, and also, you know, especially due to work that’s been done at our neighbors in NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and Stanford and UT Austin, the picture is coming to focus on what these leaks look like. And the exciting thing is that it turns out, it’s not a death by 1,000 cuts. It’s the really big leaks matter. And it turns out that if you can find those leaks very quickly and mitigate them very quickly, you can mitigate an enormous amount of environmental damage but you can also save money as an oil and gas company. And that is part of what is really driven the need for this technology is, you know, it’s a bottom line revenue thing. And it’s one of those really rare moments where the interests of oil and gas and the interests of environmentalists all align. And, you know, the reason we got there is because we’re able to do measurements.
Tom Temin: Well the economic motive, I guess, is always one of the most powerful ones. We’re speaking with Dr. Ian Coddington. He’s a scientist at NIST, and along with Kevin Cossel and Nathan Newbury, is a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals Program. And tell us a little bit about your background. Do you come to this as a spectrometer type of expert, as an oil and gas expert? What’s your, what do you bring to this?
Ian Coddington: Yeah, so I was, you know, initially I was trained as an atomic physicist, which is not really related to other things. But you know, I graduated about the time that these frequency combs were really becoming a thing. And it looked like a really fun place to play. And so I sort of rebranded as a laser physicist. Definitely in the case that we have this real advantage in our team in that there’s a really broad depth of abilities. And, you know, Kevin is actually much more of a chemist, but we also are able to get electrical engineers on staff and combine a broad array of expertise, which is kind of creative, really pushing the boundaries on this sort of technology.
Tom Temin: Yeah, frequency combs sounds like sort of a cosmic kazoo, I would guess here. What does? What is industry acceptance been so far?
Ian Coddington: It was a long journey on the oil and gas for a long time, there’s certainly quite standoffish. We, we had RPE, this Department of Energy programs that are behind us that was pushing the interaction, it was a little bit like your parents kicking you out of the house and saying, you know, don’t meet the kid next door. But the thing that changed actually is about partway through that program, the picture for these emissions started to come into focus, I think, for industry, and they realized, oh, you know, there’s potential efficiency gains. And also, their RPE forced us to do these double blind tests, where you essentially go in, there’s a Hollywood oil and gas that that they’ve created, and they’ve routed all these leaks, to retired a little gas equipment. And, you know, it’s like taking finals in college all over again, you go in there, and you measure for two weeks. And then you got to tell him what you think was leaking. And you know, they don’t. Once you’re done, they give you a scorecard. And well all breathed a big sigh of relief when it came back and turned out, you know, the system is performed extremely well. And that got a lot of interesting attention.
Tom Temin: So it could have been a herd of cows eating well, or it could have been a fracking situation behind the scenes. That’s what you had to figure out?
Ian Coddington: Yeah, exactly. You know, we had the see the small leaks and the big leaks, and the false positives are a big one. They, they really want to know if they’re gonna have to send an oil and gas crew out that there’s not, you know, this isn’t a mistake. RPE, of course, they were they were mean about it, too. And then a couple of times, they told us there was a leak. And it wasn’t one. They wanted to make sure we were sensitive to that, as well.
Tom Temin: And can this technology be turned into a commercial instrument?
Ian Coddington: There’s a monitoring service that spun out of University of Colorado, essentially, you know, over this program, we transferred the technology to University of Colorado and then with them, we kind of helped stand up this company, although, you know, most of that was handled through the University of Colorado and Greg Rieker. As they became a company, you know, we’re federal, so we needed to step back at that point. So for the last couple of years, have been mostly a spectator, but it’s been really exciting to watch like the, the growth has been phenomenal. And they’re at a point where every time they’ve dropped down a spectrometer and an oil and gas place, they’re mitigating something like 40 million cubic feet of methane emissions per system per year, which at today’s prices, you know, paid for the system in about six months or something. The financial case is absolutely there. And that’s causing the business case to just take off. It’s been really fun to see.
Tom Temin: Dr. Ian Coddington is a scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Thanks so much for joining me.
Ian Coddington: Thank you.