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Leak-detecting quantum camera can cut oil and gas industry emissions

19 Aug 2021

Development by Bristol-based QLM visualizes and measures quantity of methane lost through leaks from a great distance.

A new quantum-enabled gas imaging camera will significantly cut environmentally damaging methane leaks from the oil and gas industry. The camera is produced and developed by QLM Technology, a spinout from the University of Bristol, and funded by the UK’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund’s commercializing quantum technologies challenge.

The camera and associated software can visualize and measure gas being lost through leaks from great distances. This, say the developers, represents a major improvement on current methods of detection, which are time consuming and make measuring the amount lost difficult.

UK funding body UK Research and Innovation’s commercializing quantum technologies challenge director Roger McKinlay commented, “This camera uses quantum technology to perceive the invisible. It will help reduce the amount of methane, which escapes into the atmosphere through leaks, which is both costly to the oil and gas industry and damaging to the environment.”

In the year of COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, taking place in the UK (31 October to 12 November), innovations such as this that find practical ways of reducing emissions have never been more important, states QLM.

More potent than CO2

If released into the atmosphere, methane is 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This makes large-scale emissions many times worse for the atmosphere. QLM’s announcement states, “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. It is therefore imperative that leaks be minimized or eliminated altogether.”

The new camera is specified to perform the following functions: reduce costly losses of gas; make gas handling facilities safer; and keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

Murray Reed, CEO of QLM Technology, commented, “The oil and gas majors have pledged to significantly reduce their methane emissions, but 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, and many thousands of offshore rigs and gas storage facilities worldwide,” he said. “In the UK we have 24 major pipeline compressor stations, which power long-distance natural gas pipes, and hundreds of above ground storage installations. All are leaking at some time.”

The camera is the result of the two-year Single Photon Lidar Imaging of Carbon Emissions (SPLICE) project. It can continuously detect, quantify and model the development of leaks, and notify plant operators immediately when gas escapes. Existing laser-based systems for methane measuring use complex and costly mirror arrays to reflect light into a conventional detector.

By contrast, the QLM camera uses a revolutionary single photon avalanche detector. The detector is so sensitive it can detect just a few photons of light and can therefore detect gas without the need for a mirror.

The universities of Sheffield, Aston and Bristol, all in the UK, meanwhile, are working to expand the range of gases that the new sensors can detect, to include many other greenhouse gases. QLM stated that this research “opens up the possibility of using this technology in other sectors, such as agriculture.”

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