MIT recently held a special citizen science training in Cambridge, MA—a natural gas leak safari. According to MIT News, students and community gathered to learn about gas leaks and their link to climate change. The workshop was a collaboration between a variety of groups at MIT along with HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team), a local nonprofit. The goal of the day was to find leaks in the middle of the street which go undetected and have larger consequences, according to the post.
These persistent leaks present a different kind of threat to the public. First, they have nontrivial economic consequences (as much as $90 million of gas is simply wasted through them every year). And their long-term consequences for climate stability are even more dire. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period; a little methane goes a long way toward warming the atmosphere.
Although most people might discover a leak in their own home using their nose, detecting leaks in the middle of a street is a bit more complicated, requiring a geeked out van.
Outfitted with a $60,000 GPS-linked spectrometer, the van can “sniff out” tiny amounts of airborne natural gas close to the ground. As the van winds through the streets of Cambridge, it registers specifically the values of methane, which constitutes 95 percent of natural gas.
Methane spikes discovered in the van are investigated with hand held monitors (sniffers) along the street. The interesting point is that the sniffer is not the only leak indicator; trees can perish in gas conditions because oxygen is lacking, so patches of dead trees or clumps of tiny saplings may also be a sign. So, it appears that our eyes and nose are both sensors. HEET is hoping to develop a lending library of detectors in partnership with the Sierra Club for citizen scientists so they can some day monitor their own blocks.
One of my favorite aspects about this project is how the data is mapped. The spikes are easy-to-read targets, quickly showing the public where problems exist. Apparently HEET has been working on mapping existing data from utility companies under their Squeaky Leak project. With the help of citizen scientists and partners like MIT they will be able to do even more. This is a great example of a project that could be duplicated across cities. Any takers? If you are interested in developing your own simple gas detector for educational purposes, you should check out our CO, Alcohol and VOC Gas Sensor Breakout. It can tell you when something is present, although it won’t be able to give you specifics. Take your first step into environmental monitoring.