The University of New Mexico (UNM) Office of the Vice President of Research (OVPR) hosted U.S. Senator Heinrich (D-N.M.), showcasing UNM research on sensor systems for natural gas leak monitoring and detection. Oil and gas infrastructure accounts for 30 percent of methane emissions in the US, and reducing that number has been a priority for the legislator. 

Senator Heinrich met with Research Associate Professor Lok-kun Tsui and Distinguished Professor Fernando Garzon, both from UNM’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. The two researchers received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to research and develop new sensor technologies that can detect methane leaks from oil and gas equipment.

More than 300,000 miles of pipeline transport natural gas across the U.S., and leaks cost billions per year while contributing to global methane emissions. The infrastructure crisscrosses portions of the country that have other sources of methane too, like livestock and coastal wetlands. Garzon and Tsui are working on technology to pinpoint the exact location of the methane leaks.

Their 3-D printed sensor can detect methane and transmit sensing signals to an offsite monitor. Methane monitoring technology like this will be key to identifying the greatest sources of leaks and prioritizing which are most important to address.

“I have been proud to lead the national effort to reinstate strong federal rules at EPA to eliminate methane pollution from oil and gas operations. Methane has over 80 times the global warming potency as CO2 emissions in the short-term and poses a real danger to clean air and public health,” Sen. Heinrich said. “Developing and deploying this type of detection technology will be key to monitoring pollution in real time so we can prevent methane from leaking, venting or flaring into our atmosphere.”

UNM Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs James Holloway and Vice President for Research Ellen Fisher were also in attendance for the presentation.

“This technology has been years in the making and never has it been more critically needed,” said Holloway. “The research has successfully garnered initial and additional funding from DOE, which recognizes the need for this type of technology and the viability of solutions our researchers are bringing to the table. We’re proud of the success Professors Garzon and Tsui have seen so far and applaud their continued efforts on this important work.”

UNM partnered with SensorComm Technologies and Kamil Agi, Research Associate Professor of the UNM Electrical and Computer Engineering department, for this project to develop portable data acquisition and transmission technology needed for a sensor system.

Related story: UNM methane leak detection research could help reduce emissions