Driving along County Road 28 south of Platteville, the signs of Colorado’s oil and gas boom are everywhere you look. Storage tanks and wellheads dot the horizon. Bundles of pipe sit by the roadside, waiting to become pipelines. Drilling rigs loom behind enormous brown temporary sound barriers, a stone’s throw from homes and businesses.
This infrastructure is impossible to miss, but the methane that leaks from it can be much harder to detect. That’s why Greg Rieker and a colleague are out here on a cold, sun-drenched morning in the middle of the Denver-Julesburg Basin – one of the nation’s fracking hotspots – fine-tuning their frequency comb laser.
Standing atop a small trailer housing the $150,000 device, Rieker gestures across a grassy expanse toward a well pad half a mile away. “We’ve used this system to pinpoint a leak to about a 5-square-meter area,” he says. “It’s a question of, when leaks start, seeing them and sizing them properly so we can alert an operator there’s a problem. There are 20,000 wells out there. This is a Colorado-grown solution, using Colorado technology.”
Rieker is a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder and chief technology officer of LongPath Technologies, a startup that aims to provide oil and gas companies with a new method for detecting methane leaks from their operations. He is among a growing cadre of scientists and entrepreneurs working to develop and deploy novel technologies to address the growing issue of methane leaks across the fossil fuel supply chain.
Methane is a potent contributor to climate change, trapping 86 times as much heat as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. It is responsible for about a quarter of total atmospheric warming to date, but it only lasts about a decade in the atmosphere, making reducing methane emissions a relatively fast-acting lever for climate action.