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A Tiny Detection Chip Could Find Methane Leaks Autonomously

Today the industry uses an expensive, inefficient method to monitor for leaks: infrared cameras, which cost $85,000 to $125,000 and require a human operator. That means companies must send a person to manually scan equipment for escaping gas. “These cameras are expensive, and it takes one to two hours to do a well pad, four to six hours for a compressor station, and it could be a full day for a processing plant,” explains Doug Jordan, corporate environmental program director at Southwestern Energy. “It’s very resource-intensive.” Companies typically do these checks only once a quarter to once a year. If, say, a piece of equipment starts leaking right after a survey, it might go undetected for months. Furthermore, a camera might only be sensitive enough to catch larger leaks, potentially missing smaller ones. IBM scientists and engineers, working with researchers at Harvard and Princeton universities, have devised a miniature sensor chip—about five by five millimeters in Skip Tracing Tool size—that continuously watches for methane. The sensor, housed on a small silicon wafer, contains a laser and a silicon optical cable that channels the laser light through it.* Some of that light shines outside the cable into the air; when methane molecules waft above the sensor, they absorb a specific wavelength of the light, creating a unique signature. “Our method is designed to detect very small changes in light absorption,” explains William Green, manager of the Silicon Integrated Nanophotonics Group at IBM. That information gets fed back to a photodetector on the chip, which converts the signature into an electrical signal.

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