Powering a safer future

Online Editor

Mark Naples explains how the hopes for power and purpose from an energy industry in flux could rest with tiny, precision infrared filters

"We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator," said the UN secretary-general, António Guterres. Even after years of corporate promises, COP conferences and policy pledges, the climate crisis is as grim as it has ever been. The time for measurable action is now.

This has spurred the EU to move towards energy efficiency and renewables faster than anybody thought possible with solar and wind power use at an all-time high.  Corporations leading on climate action are looking for the next generation of climate technologies to invest in and scale to meet deep decarbonisation targets.

The energy industry has been built on invention and reinvention. The energy transition isn't a new concept. We've witnessed several shifts in our lifetime, from coal to the rise of natural gas, to the shale revolution and the advent of renewable energy. Energy has always been an industry in transition – managing volatility, advancing technology and innovation to power the world's progress and economic development is simply what it does. That role has never been more important than it is right now.

Let there be light

Worldwide, oil and gas companies squander at least 210 billion cubic metres of natural gas each year through leaks, flaring and other emissions that dump methane (CH4), a potent climate pollutant, into the atmosphere. The amount of gas wasted annually is nearly 25% more than Europe was importing from Russia before the war in Ukraine.

At a time when countries are worried about keeping homes warm and lights on, plugging leaks and stopping gas waste is low-hanging fruit – a quick and cheap option for filling some of the energy gaps created by the loss of Russian gas.

Capturing the mind-boggling amount of CH4 wasted each year across the oil and gas industry would mean progress for both the climate crisis and the energy crisis. We know that solutions exist and what these are, and we know that a lot can be done without building expensive infrastructure. Technology is now more affordable and accessible than ever. Connected gas detection isn't the technology of the future anymore. It's right here and more money-saving, sustainable and straightforward than you think.

CH4, a widely-used natural gas, is one of the most damaging greenhouse gases due to its ability to absorb infrared light emitted from the Earth’s surface. This effectively traps infrared light emitted from Earth as heat and contributes to the warming of our atmosphere. However, infrared spectroscopy can be used to exploit the infrared absorbing property of CH4 to determine the atmospheric concentrations of these gases.

Getting on the right wavelength

Typically, when you are emitting, it is the result of a problem that can be fixed. With both natural (biogenic) and human-caused (anthropogenic) CH4 emissions accounting for US$19 billion in wasted natural gas, something as simple as a leaking pipe or a poorly managed wetland has a real, serious cost to businesses. However, to mitigate this wastage, it must first be identified.

Laser absorption spectroscopy is currently the most effective and cost-efficient method of emission detection. This means it is widely used in the monitoring of atmospheric greenhouse gases, pollution, and respiration processes.

The detection is based on how light is absorbed as it passes through a medium. Emitters within the sensor generate pulses of IR light that pass through a sampling chamber containing a filter. The filter blocks out light of a certain wavelength, meaning only the required wavelengths make it past the filter to reach a detector. This detector measures the intensity (or attenuation) of the IR light, which can determine the precise concentration of gas that may be present. Different filters allow different wavelengths of light to reach the detector, which can, in turn, be used to detect different gases and distinct particles.

As it works using the unique properties of light, this kind of sensing technology offers near-limitless scope. It can be used to analyse the particulate matter in human breath, allowing for a detailed breakdown of the particles that enter and leave our lungs with every breath we take. At the other end of the scale, it can be installed in satellites and sent into orbit to monitor for significant gas leaks across the globe. Although both of these applications require very different systems in terms of size and scope, the principle behind the technology is the same.

Newer gas analyser instruments use a laser diode mounted on a thermo-electric cooler to tune a laser’s wavelength to the specific absorption wavelength of a particular molecule. They exploit their high-frequency resolution, which results in enhanced sensitivity - more significant levels of interaction between gas molecules and light in the order of parts per billion - and discrimination, as they are tuned to specific gas compounds. This eliminates the potential for false alarms, a common headache with other commonly used gas detection technologies. And, by incorporating different filters into a system that allow different wavelengths of light to reach the detector, it is possible to check for multiple different gases using the same compact system. This allows for the monitoring of almost any harmful gas, from methane to carbon dioxide to radon.

Knowledge is power

The benefits of these sensors include fast response times and accurate results without using any additional gases to operate. This technology has advanced to the point of detectors that continuously monitor for combustible gases and vapours within the lower explosive limit and provide alarm indications. These can be deployed within oxygen-deficient or enriched areas, require little calibration, and are immune to sensor poison, contamination, or corrosion.

This technology is not merely for preventing disasters. It can be used to collect detailed emissions data and build a total emissions profile around a business and its operations, both on a regional, national, or international level. With manufacturing industries on the verge of a data-driven revolution, this data sharing will enable manufacturers to establish a carbon emissions baseline and provide the foundation for initiatives to decarbonise production operations.

This can then be used to promote our most powerful ally in the quest for a safer future – education. Granular data on air quality – at a macro or micro level – can help inform reports and government education programmes that can shape public opinion and drive real, lasting change.

Actions speak louder

Every day, tons of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other unnoticed emissions leak into the atmosphere, untracked and unmeasured – but not without impact. The global economy loses more than US$8 trillion annually, according to The World Bank. But action to identify its presence and catalogue its makeup and levels still lags.

Integrating infrared optical filters within a gas detection and analysis system enables any business to identify and monitor leaks of any size to help build a comprehensive emissions profile. This technology has placed manufacturing industries on the verge of a data-driven revolution, one where data sharing will enable manufacturers to establish a carbon emissions baseline and provide the foundation for initiatives to decarbonise production operations.

Whether monitoring process gas for carbon reduction applications, or safety monitoring for areas where these gases can present a risk to life, laser absorption spectroscopy is increasingly trusted by some of the largest OEMs in the industry to power the detectors and analysers that allow them to slash their emissions.

By embracing data, the industry can be empowered to make more informed decisions to improve processes and drive efficiencies. The net result: more sustainable performance, heightened productivity, better quality products, reduced energy usage, lower emissions and less landfill. That's the sort of future we all need to invest in.

Mark Naples is Managing Director at Umicore Coatings Services


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