NIST Upgrades Technology for Monitoring Methane Emissions

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The future of emissions monitoring is looking bright as Mead and Cossel plan to measure other gases, such as nitrous oxide emissions from wastewater treatment plants. “Our goal is to further refine the system’s sensitivity and precision and expand our research area. We’ll be doing studies near Salt Lake City within the next few years, which will provide some regional variations,” Cossel says.

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NIST Upgrades Technology for Monitoring Methane Emissions

Improved readings despite harsh field conditions

The heart of this system—frequency combs built from fiber lasers used in the telecommunications industry—is already available commercially, opening the door for companies and labs to replicate this system nationwide.

Beyond methane

Methane has approximately 30 times greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Substantially reducing methane emissions can help reduce the risks of climate change. But to manage methane emissions, you need to measure them, which presents many technical challenges.

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Traditional methods for tracking methane emissions are based on economic activity. For instance, one might calculate the emissions from a CAFO by multiplying the number of animals there by an estimate of how much methane each animal emits. The NIST method, on the other hand, estimates emissions by directly measuring the variation of methane and other gases in the atmosphere. 

Precision emission measurement with spectroscopy

“We had an early version of this system that we took out into the field, but if you look at the data, there’s lots of downtime when the system wasn’t functioning,” says Cossel. “We rebuilt the system to make it more temperature stable and improve the data collection process.”

Previous versions of this frequency comb spectrometer have been in use for several years. But the latest version boasts improved robustness, portability, and adaptability to diverse climates.

The NIST setup uses frequency combs, a special type of laser with a broad spectrum of colors or wavelengths, to measure gas concentrations along a path in the air. Methane and other gases will absorb specific wavelengths of that light, which then travels back to the setup after reflecting from a mirror deployed at a nearby location. A second frequency comb precisely measures how much light is absorbed at those wavelengths to determine the concentration of these gases and help pinpoint what type of source produced the emission.

“Collecting this type of data is what’s useful for policymakers to see how emissions are changing over time so they can adjust regulations accordingly,” says Kevin Cossel, NIST researcher and co-author of the study.

The new system measures not only methane but other gases, including ethane and ammonia. By simultaneously measuring and analyzing correlations between multiple gases, the study aimed to distinguish contributions from the oil and gas and agriculture sectors, which were then used to improve emissions estimates. This can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the sources and impacts of these pollutants.