A design challenge for the tech industry: Low-cost methane detectors

Tom Murray

I believe that Environmental Defense Fund is at its best when we are leveraging the power of market leaders to drive innovation and solve environmental challenges. Over the years we have worked with McDonalds, Walmart, FedEx, KKR and many others to kick start market transformations in sectors including fast food, shipping, retail, private equity and commercial building energy efficiency.

The Methane Detectors Challenge, an effort that EDF launched today, applies a familiar strategy to a new industry and challenge. From now until June 17th, EDF and five oil and gas companies — Apache Corporation, BG Group, Hess Corporation, Noble Energy and Southwestern Energy — are accepting proposals from innovators and technology developers for reliable, low-cost technologies capable of continuous detection of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. The goal of the Challenge is to test and validate devices that make it easier for the oil and gas industry to find and quickly fix methane leaks, a highly potent greenhouse gas and the main ingredient in natural gas. Through this initiative, we hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by shrinking the time between identifying harmful methane leaks and repairing them from months to days or even hours.

What’s in it for innovators?

The most promising innovations will receive rigorous and independent testing at Southwest Research Institute’s state-of-the-art laboratory, and based on the outcomes, will be considered for pilot purchases at facilities run by many of the participating companies. For winning developers, the advantages of participating in the process are threefold:

  • First mover advantage for a new, emerging market, within an industry that has always shown a willingness to adopt new technology to improve operations and production;
  • Exposure for your technology with industry, academic, environmental and technology experts; and
  • Most importantly to us, providing solutions that help address one of our most pressing short-term climate risks. A market-ready device could be deployed at any of the more than 700,000 oil and gas drilling sites across the country.

Established approach, new sector

Asking for proposals from innovators isn’t a new approach for EDF, but the problem and organizations we’re working with make this a new and exciting challenge to tackle. Back in 2000, when we wanted to help FedEx reduce the climate and health impacts of its delivery fleet, we put together a similar call for innovative technologies. This effort led to a groundbreaking collaboration with FedEx and Eaton Corporation to develop the next generation of delivery truck. Together we unveiled the first diesel-hybrid electric delivery trucks and today, more than 40 types of hybrid delivery trucks are currently on the market, including hybrid tractor-trailer trucks for heavy freight hauling.

Today’s Challenge builds on our nearly 25 years of experience working with companies, but taps in to new areas of innovation by reaching out to innovators in the technology sector, including sensor developers and sensor system experts, to solve one of the most pressing environmental problems of our time. We plan to leverage the experience of a diverse advisory board of experts and scientists – including from universities like Harvard University and University of Houston, and nonprofits like Clean Air Task Force – to advise on testing protocols and ensure the best emerging science is taken into account. In addition, by collaborating with five industry leading companies we will ensure that solutions are market ready by evaluating how well they meet the performance needs of the oil and gas sector.

The Challenge announced today is an effort to accelerate the development and deployment of real-world solutions to a real-world problem. Curbing methane emissions holds immediate benefits for the climate and preserves a valuable domestic energy resource. We don’t have a moment to lose, so let the best technologies advance.