Methane is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kind of gas: on one hand, it is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel. On the other, if it leaks, methane itself is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. In this special Hash It Out episode, Brian and Fedor go from 18th century Italian methane guns to present day Google Street View cars that sniff out methane leaks. Listen to learn about the history of methane, its current uses, and what is being done to curb its environmental impact.
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Brian Truglio: Hello, welcome to episode 4 of Hash it Out, hosted by the Miles To Go podcast. I am Brian Truglio, senior editor with Miles O’Brien Productions.
Fedor Kossakovski: I’m Fedor Kossakovski. I am a researcher, web editor, sometimes producer for Miles.
Brian Truglio: This week we have a topic that is very near and dear to Fedor and I: methane. That topic doesn’t sound so exciting but it’s actually the first project that Fedor and I worked on together.
Fedor Kossakovski: Must have been two years ago at this point?
Brian Truglio: At least. Such a long romance that we can remember that and we’ve just done some reporting for PBS NewsHour so you can go check that out as well. So today we thought we would give you an introduction to methane and why it matters.
Fedor Kossakovski: Hash out why it matters. Why is methane important?
Brian Truglio: Aside from the fact that we get a chance to make lots of cow fart jokes, methane is something that we should definitely be taking seriously and taking seriously right now. Fedor, you’ve been doing a lot of digging on this recently, what did you find?
Fedor Kossakovski: The first thing that we are going to try to figure out is what is methane? What the heck is this molecule, substance, what is it? Methane is a hydrocarbon.
Brian Truglio: Hydrocarbon. Sounds like it has water and carbon in it.
Fedor Kossakovski: That’s close yeah, hydrocarbons have hydrogen and carbon.
Brian Truglio: Hydrogen and carbon. OK.
Fedor Kossakovski: So sometimes they also have some oxygen in there but then it becomes more complex it’s not truly technically a hydrocarbon. But methane is actually the simplest hydrocarbon: it’s got one carbon molecule surrounded by four hydrogens.
Brian Truglio: OK.
Fedor Kossakovski: Basically it’s the simplest hydrocarbon you can make.
Brian Truglio: And hydrocarbons are important because essentially they make up everything we know as fuel. Is that right?
Fedor Kossakovski: That’s correct, but before we get there a few more things about methane that I’ve found interesting. First of all it’s a colorless and odorless gas. So some of these hydrocarbons are gas–butane, propane you might imagine in the gas tank for your grill. Other ones like oil or coal can be solid or liquid. The longer and more complex the chains become usually the more liquid or solid they are more likely to be that. But this is a colorless and odorless gas which makes detecting leaks difficult. Either they’re coming from natural gas pipes or from your butt. The only way you can detect it at least through smelling is because there’s other sulphurous compounds added stuff with sulfur in it, which smells like rotten eggs.
Brian Truglio: I see. So when the gas company delivers you natural gas which natural gas is almost all methane is that right?
Fedor Kossakovski: That’s the active ingredient. It’s the main thing that matters for sure.
Brian Truglio: So when the company is delivering the gas to your house they’re adding in the sulfurous smell so that basically so you can detect it.
Fedor Kossakovski: Right. Because because it’s very flammable which will also get to in a second. So who do you think discovered methane and when?
Brian Truglio: Who discovered methane? I don’t know what I’m going to say. Newton? I have no idea.
Fedor Kossakovski: I mean solid guess, solid guess. It was actually Alessandro Volta. You might have heard–Volta, the guy who invented the battery in 1800. He made the first what’s called voltaic pile where he started adding different metals on top of each other and that kind of made a big battery that he could actually use. He was really interested in electricity and also electricity in animals which he thought was how animals also moved.
Brian Truglio: So when you say electricity in animals you’re talking about what like nerve impulses.
Fedor Kossakovski: Yeah yeah yeah. Well so they didn’t know about that yet. But basically that’s a slightly different topic of discussion which is fascinating in itself. I once wrote an article for the American Chemical Society about how the battery was made which was really interesting. It was mostly about Galvani and Volta going back and forth what the principles of electricity and electricity storage are. But before Volta did anything about batteries he discovered methane and I’m going to read you a little excerpt from the University of Pavia which is I believe an Italian university. They say “In October of… (1775) Count Firmian put Volta in charge of Experimental Physics at the State Grammar School in Como.
While on his summer holidays, in 1776, on Lake Maggiore, his boat went alongside the reeds near Angera [city in Italy]. Volta began to poke the muddy bottom of the water with a stick and saw lots of gassy bubbles floating up to burst on the surface. He collected some of this gas and discovered it was inflammable. He called it inflammable air from marshlands.”
It was decades before he built the first battery and this in itself wasn’t a big breakthrough. He just was doing a little bit of experimentation. It took almost 100 years for methane to even be termed methane and that was by a German chemist August Wilhelm von Hoffman. But Volta didn’t really care about that. He was just doing it seems like for fun because he built a little methane gun. He used the gas and a little bit of static electricity that he made a little device to make static electricity, he used that as a spark and made a little gun that could shoot a piece of lead like ten feet and make a little dent. So looked he was kind of doing it for fun and doing a little bit of experimentation. But it was pretty early on. When I was looking at this story I found a very very interesting story about the lake, Lake Maggiore. And I’m reading this quote from an article from hemmings.com. I guess we can link it.
“For the locals around Lake Maggiore on the Italian-Swiss border, the mythology surrounding the Bugatti in the Lake was well known. This particular 1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster used to belong to Golden Age of Grand Prix driver René Dreyfus, who lost it in a drunken poker game to Swiss playboy Adalbert Bodé in Paris in 1934; Bodé soon left for home with his new machine, but with no cash in pocket, he was unable to pay its import duties when he was stopped at the Swiss border. Bodé walked away, leaving Swiss officials to dispose of his prize however they saw fit. In those days, a ten-year-old Bugatti wasn’t of significant value, so officials chose to roll it into the lake; its eventual resting spot was 173 feet below the surface of the water.
Yet it wasn’t until the summer of 1967, when deep-diving technology was able to overcome the 29 fathoms of water pressure, that the Bugatti tale ceased to be a myth; a local diving club was able to see it for the first time. For more than four decades, amateur divers plunged the depths of the lake to catch a glimpse…”
I’m going to say that this is where the story actually gets weird.
“In 2008, a local boy was killed at a street fair, a victim of a brutal, random beating; the local diving club elected to raise the long-sunken Bugatti and donate the proceeds to a non-profit foundation established in the victim’s name to combat youth violence. A crowd of thousands witnessed the long-sunk Type 22 emerge from Lake Maggiore on July 12, 2009.”
You can find photos of this thing online. It’s crazy it’s like all rusted out and it’s this oldtime Bugatti. I just thought that was a really bizarre other story but it also fits in with… that’s when we were also starting to make cars and really starting to get going with our fuel economy. And I think that leads us back to: so why does methane matter? Well like other hydrocarbons it’s useful in that it burns. And we in the US at least happen to have a lot of it and have recently discovered how to get it out of the ground relatively easily with fracking which is injecting pressurized water and few other things mixed in there and cracking open the rock and bringing the gas up to the surface to collect it.
Brian Truglio: Kind of pushing it out of its pockets in the shale.
Fedor Kossakovski: Exactly exactly. Shale is exactly the kind of rock formation that you are looking for. This is the Bakken formation in the upper Midwest is a huge place for this. But methane: it’s a Jekyll and Hyde fuel right there there’s a good site and a bad side. You’ve got the classic British story about a do-gooding Dr. Jekyll who at night turns into this vicious monster of Mr. Hyde. This is kind of like a Jekyll and Hyde fuel where there is some good and some bad. The good side is if we are intent on burning fossil fuels, if we take that as you know that’s what we’re going to be using, methane is the best.
Brian Truglio: And why is it the best?
Fedor Kossakovski: That’s a very good question. I think it demonstrates an interesting principle of chemistry. About how burning works chemically. It’s a very simple equation. You have your carbohydrate mixing with oxygen right in your oxygenated environment whatever that is outside and you mix those two together add a little bit of starter energy and out of that you get CO2 and water, H2O, and a bunch more energy that you can use. And this reaction is kind of like rust if you want to think about it it’s like rusting very quickly in a way because we have this environment we have a lot of oxygen and oxygen is a very reactive molecule and it wants to grab electrons from other molecules and wants to split them up and add oxygens to them. So that’s basically what’s happening when you burn wood when you burn coal when you burn oil when you burn methane. All of that what you’re doing is you’re combining the carbon rich molecule with the oxygen and that process rips it apart and turns into CO2 and H2O and energy.
Brian Truglio: So like if you light a candle for example. So that flame is the release of energy?
Fedor Kossakovski: That’s correct. Right at that border you have some sort of carbohydrate some paraffin wax that’s also some kind of carbohydrate, adding with oxygen in the air. Right. And it’s releasing CO2, H2O, and energy. But this equation posits two interesting facts: one about energy one about environment. And that’s because making the water molecules specifically in that on the second side of the equation the right hand side releases more energy then making that CO2. So if we are caring about the efficiency of our fuel of our carbohydrate that we’re burning want to have as much hydrogen there as possible so that we make as much water as possible so that we can make as much energy when that water molecule forms as possible.
Brian Truglio: So the ideal fuel has the most hydrogen that we can get per carbon?
Fedor Kossakovski: Correct. Because if you think about it for the carbon dioxide the carbon there is coming from the carbohydrate not from the oxygen. The oxygen only has oxygen. Same thing for the water: the hydrogen for those is coming from also the carbohydrate not the oxygen. So it’s a matter of splitting bonds and reforming bonds. And the way that you reform the bonds for water releases more energy than CO2. So you want to be making more of the water per unit CO2 to get more of the energy.
Brian Truglio: So in other words the more carbon you have the more energy it’s going to take from that reaction which you could be extracting excess energy from in order to form that CO2 bond.
Fedor Kossakovski: Exactly. And you can just use more of the fuel if it’s less efficient right. But if we care about energy density and being efficient with our fuels and saving them as much as possible you know just because there are limited resources, this is something we should care about.
Brian Truglio: We want to get the most hydrogens per carbon. And methane has four of them per carbon.
Fedor Kossakovski: Exactly. So if we start from the other end… We started burning wood first. Right. Wood was our kind of first fuel. Wood has ten times the amount of carbon as it does hydrogen in the way that it’s built. So there’s long long chains of carbon in there, they’re fibers of that plant right. They don’t have as much hydrogen and we burn that. Then we moved onto coal and coal is better. It’s got two times as much carbon as hydrogen. So that’s you know an efficiency improvement of five times. So you’re going to be burning much more per pound, you’re going to get a lot more energy out of it. The next step was oil right. And that has actually flipped like coal so it’s like instead of two carbons per one hydrogen, oil because it’s more refined leaves us with about twice as much hydrogen as carbon. And then of course the holy grail of energy density then would be methane because that’s literally the most you can have per unit carbon. The most hydrogen you could have, it’s four hydrogens per unit carbon. And actually you can go even further and we don’t really need carbon. The burning equation works with just hydrogen but then the equation is a little different and you combine hydrogen with oxygen and making just water. And that’s actually what the hydrogen fuel cell economy is trying to do with hydrogen fuel cell cars. You know you can literally put a glass on the end of one of those tailpipes for a hydrogen fuel cell car and drink the water that comes out because it’s just water.
Brian Truglio: That’s pretty awesome.
Fedor Kossakovski: So the energy density of methane is very attractive right because it per units thing that you mine, it is the most you could get energy-wise.
Brian Truglio: So that’s our Dr. Jekyll, that’s the good part of methane.
Fedor Kossakovski: And there’s still another part that’s good which is if we care about the environment we want less carbon per hydrogen in our carbohydrate that we’re burning in the beginning so that we make less CO2.
Brian Truglio: So it’s most energy, least CO2 of all the fossil fuels are carbon based fuels.
Fedor Kossakovski: And CO2 we know is the main driver of human caused climate change. So again you know we want the least carbon per hydrogen. Again methane satisfies that requirement sort of. So basically it’s like if you just look at those ratios that we just talked about, if oil has one carbon per two hydrogens and methane has one carbon per four hydrogens we can pretty safely say that methane releases half as much CO2 as oil when you burn it.
Brian Truglio: Okay got you.
Fedor Kossakovski: Because oil has twice as much carbon per hydrogen in that equation.
Brian Truglio: Got it. So that’s really the Dr. Jekyll part of it. We’re getting least CO2, most energy out of this fossil fuel. OK.
Fedor Kossakovski: So the flipside though is there are several things that people have concerns about. And people will tout methane as a good bridge fuel like as we’re moving you know like we’re moving yeah we’re decarbonizing this is the right way to go. But others you know say bridge fuels are like phony pursuits. We should not be pursuing something that has carbon at all. We should just go to hydrogen right away. Right. We should push the whole system to get to that. No carbon per hydrogen ratio.
Brian Truglio: Right. Well then we’re getting dangerously close to mentioning nuclear which we said we weren’t going to mention that.
Fedor Kossakovski: Yeah we’ll save that for a 26 part series on thorium. But I would say that the pragmatic approach to this is you know we’re going to keep using methane. There’s a bunch of it like I said in the Bakken formation in the upper Midwest, there’s a bunch of it all over. We know how to get it out pretty easily now and it’s cheap domestically. Like it has changed the energy landscape of the United States in the past five to 10 years. It’s crazy how different it is.
Brian Truglio: It was part of our energy independence strategy too which was the big national security thing. That we now make more of our own energy than we import. So methane, natural gas was key to that whole equation.
Fedor Kossakovski: And people were really excited because as we mentioned it releases half the amount of CO2 as burning oil. Right. So that’s a huge benefit. However the catch here, the Mr. Hyde catch, is that we get these climatic benefits only if we burn methane all the way. If the methane itself which is a gas gets into the atmosphere, it’s even more powerful than CO2 at warming the planet. It’s on a 20 year scale it’s about 86 times better at trapping heat than CO2 and on a 100 year scale about 36 times better at trapping heat. The difference is because actually CH4 which is the molecule it breaks down into CO2 after just being in the air for a while, the oxygen grabs it anyway and breaks up. So then it just it actually just turns into CO2 which is what they’re factoring in to make it. You know it’s still going to stay in the air just in a different form.
Brian Truglio: So basically it traps more heat significantly more powerful but it doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere all that long. We’re talking about 10 years about a decade for methane breakdown in the atmosphere whereas CO2 is going to hang around for 100 plus years.
Fedor Kossakovski: Yeah yeah. It can hang around a while it can also stay in the circulation go into the ocean then come back out and stuff so it’s like it’s kind of hard to trace the length of CO2 but it’s at least a century that it stays in the air.
Brian Truglio: So one of them is going to break down in a fraction of your lifetime. And the other is basically the span of a human life for it to break down. And that is the Mr. Hyde or the bad side of methane. So you have this equation where you have to be sure that the good outweighs the bad.
Fedor Kossakovski: Absolutely yeah. And the problem of it being odorless and colorless really comes to the fore here because what you’re trying to do is try to figure out OK where are the leaks of methane be they natural or unnatural and we’ll talk about that second. But being that it’s odorless and colorless the little leaks that don’t even have enough to trigger your smell response with the sulfur in a natural gas pipeline for example can be harmful to the environment, but you won’t notice it. There may be many of these but we don’t really know. And natural gas pipelines aren’t the only sources. Right now we have, we’re mostly dealing with bottom up inventories because the study of where methane is coming from is really only just heating up in the past five years or so.
Brian Truglio: When you say bottom up inventory that means basically you go around and you figure out where methane is coming from, which industries, and you estimate how much is coming from each of the industries and then you add all that up together and you get an estimate of what’s being released right. That’s called bottom up inventory.
Fedor Kossakovski: Yeah absolutely it’s like for example the oil and gas industry they know what their pipes are made of. And they’ll be like OK this kind of pipe is on average in the lab it leaks about this much per mile. How many miles of pipes do we have? That’s probably how much we’re leaking. It’s a good first step. I’m not saying it’s they shouldn’t be doing it at all but I’m saying that’s not really the measure of how much methane is around. It’s like how much we want it to be.
Brian Truglio: Right. It’s an indirect way of measuring it.
Fedor Kossakovski: Yeah and who knows like you know with for example the pipes something like Okay well how those years of wear and tear change that right? Or like how does changing weather you know like what if you had a storm or something? What if you had a really cold winter and your pipes got you know expanded and then contracted and then broke more? All this stuff is like hard to tell. So I think the breakdown of sources that I found on NASA’s website was fascinating and I know we’ve been talking about this a lot but I think it’s just such a fun list of stuff and it really shows the wide variety of where methane is coming from. So there’s two kind of main buckets: natural sources and human-caused sources. Natural sources are about 30 percent of the pie chart and of the total of 100 percent it’s wetlands is 22 percent, just wetlands releasing kind of like on that late that Volta first captured methane, that’s the single biggest contributor, wetlands. Then we have termites. Literally just termites and they release methane because they have microorganisms, bacteria, archaea, other kinds of microorganisms in their guts, that help them digest wood.
Brian Truglio: Interesting. OK.
Fedor Kossakovski: And then they release methane, kind of like a fart but it’s not even really there fart. It’s like this fart within a fart. But that’s 4 percent of all the methane in the world is being released by termites which is wild.
Brian Truglio: That’s an amazing number. I love that number when I saw this. Because you look at all these sources which are very general. And then wow four percent of it is just termite. It turns out that there are just massive massive amounts of termites like the biomass of termites is really significant.
Fedor Kossakovski: It’s crazy how big of an impact that is. The last kind of major contributor for the natural side is hydrates and ocean. So basically methane dissolved either in the ocean or in the sea floor where it’s compressed far enough that it actually solidifies. And what happens is it combines with water to make a very complex mixture almost and they’re called clathrates or hydrates and they were just recently discovered Mars.
Brian Truglio: It’s sort of like methane trapped in ice.
Fedor Kossakovski: Yes that’s a good way to put it. Yes it’s like methane trapped ice. It kind of looks like lard. It looks like a chunk of lard. And you can take it out and actually burn it. And it’s really cool like they think some of the methane that’s released on Mars that they just discovered has seasonal variation is because of the way the clathrates, the methane in ice under the ground gets heated up by the sun and releases the methane. So I wonder if you know once we’re there maybe we could find that lard looking methane chunks and burn them.
Brian Truglio: Would be interesting.
Fedor Kossakovski: Finding carbon rich molecules is good or really again hydrogen rich molecules is good for finding it somewhere on a different planet like that.
Brian Truglio: But we should say even though this methane trapped in ice is the leading theory for what’s going on on Mars, they cannot rule out that there is a possibility that microbes could be releasing methane, is that right?
Fedor Kossakovski: Oh yeah yeah. They are saying this is their most likely guess and they’re not quite sure but the all the different biotic and abiotic sources are being explored. And speaking of biotic versus abiotic, now we have natural versus unnatural human caused methane here. So human produce methane accounts for 70 percent of the methane that’s being released right now and the vast majority almost rivaling wetlands is energy production right. Oil gas mining coal all that kind of stuff and just usage–it accounts for about 19 percent of all methane released in the world. The other big one is the wonderful pseudonym enteric fermentation. Brian, I know this is one of your favorite topics. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about cow farts and burps.
Brian Truglio: I will admit it was disappointing when I found out that enteric fermentation which I thought was cow farts so I thought we could conveniently title our film about methane: How cow farts will destroy the world and everything we love in it. But it turns out enteric fermentation actually comes out more through cow burps. Regardless of which end it comes out of the fermentation or the digestion that’s going on in a cow does result in the release of methane and it’s not just cows. Cows are by far the largest and actually you can you Google it you can see a breakdown of all the farm animals and how much they release I think the second one after cows is sheep and goats are up there too and pigs and they all in the process of their digestion they are releasing methane. And interestingly enough just in case you’re immediately thinking “Huh could you capture that methane instead of releasing it?” Yes that has already been thought of. And in Argentina they did create a test herd of cows I’m not for some reason I remember it being around 70 or 80 cows where they actually tapped directly into their stomach and then trapped the methane in the digestion process and put it into a literally a methane backpack that sat on top of the cow.
Fedor Kossakovski: So you’re saying they drilled a hole in the side of the cow and tapped into its stomach or did they go through the throat? No, cause then they couldn’t eat.
Brian Truglio: Right through the side of it.
Fedor Kossakovski: Yeah that’s tough.
Brian Truglio: And apparently like one cow produces enough to run one refrigerator or something like that. And yeah each day they would come in and they would take the gas from the cow. Now the problem is 1) scaling this up which really doesn’t work, and then 2) trying to make it economically feasible neither of which actually work. But the concept has been proven and it’s an interesting idea. And in fact in India as well I believe there is an attempt to try and deploy this model where they can use the methane and capture it, put it into tractors and other machines that you know would use it on the farm. So who knows. Stay tuned. Cow backpacks might be the wave of the future. I sure hope so. It looks really cool. So when you see enteric fermentation that’s that’s what you’re talking about.
Fedor Kossakovski: Yes that’s a good euphemism to use at the dinner table when you farted and have to cover up. The other big ones are also kind of in the same vein. It’s rice cultivation is 12 percent. And there’s actually efforts right now to develop you know either through regular breeding or through tinkering with the genes a little bit, genetic engineering, making new rice that has less methane emissions.
Brian Truglio: And the downside to that is that they’ve already been able to develop a rice that releases about 10 percent of the methane of the current rice that we use but it has to be labelled GMO. And this is a whole other show, our big beef with GMO. And this is a reason why the GMO bucket is so big that lots of really good helpful things get thrown in with other things that could be damaging to the environment. So that’s my two cents on GMO but it’s unfortunate because there already has been a strain of rice engineered that could reduce methane. And you know we should stop here for a second and just say the reason that wetlands or swamps or marshes and rice cultivation are both emitting methane is because methane comes from what are called anaerobic process. Comes from processes where there is no oxygen or oxygen starved environments let’s say. So when you think of a swamp, swamps are basically water deprived of oxygen and the same with rice, rice growing in those same kinds of paddy fields. And so wherever you’re going to find an environment that’s low in oxygen likely the microbes there are going to be producing methane as a result.
Fedor Kossakovski: Yeah absolutely that’s a very good point. To finish off the list, biomass burning 8 percent, landfills 6 percent, sewage treatment 5 percent, animal waste 5 percent. So kind of it all in the same kind of bucket like what you’re saying, lot of gross stuff producing methane because there’s not much oxygen. Right. You have like kind of you know big piles of cow patties or you have all your raw sewage all in one place and it’s covered or you have landfills which you know that’s huge piles of garbage that prevent any oxygen from getting in and so inside the microbes are making methane. So these are all the bottom up inventory numbers so we actually don’t quite know where are all these leaks. And that research is starting the past few years has been one of the main things that they’ve been looking at.
Brian Truglio: So the opposite or I should say the counter to the bottom up would be to actually measure the methane in the atmosphere directly and that would be like a top down inventory. And that was actually attempted a few years ago using a combination of satellite data and ground observation. And in the top down category a few years ago in 2016, there was a Harvard study–however not just Harvard, there were other studies as well that were done–studies that compare different methane inventories over time. And those studies found that the amount of methane in the atmosphere was increasing fairly significantly over time whereas the EPA bottom up inventory which was again kind of estimates inventory was indicating that methane release levels were basically constant that we were basically releasing the same amount of methane every year for the last 10, 20 years. And this study from 2016 was what kind of started the alarm bells ringing. People started saying well wait if the amount of methane that’s in the atmosphere is increasing and more and more of it is appearing every year we’ve got a problem. And the bigger side of the problem is that we don’t know where it’s coming from. Where is this coming from? So you know you can jump to some obvious sources. You can say well we’re fracking more, maybe it’s fracking? But also the planet is warming. So maybe more of it’s being released from the hydrates or from the permafrost. You know there’s lots of places to look where we weren’t previously looking and our past knowledge of methane is pretty poor.
Fedor Kossakovski: So the Environmental Defense Fund which we’ll refer to as EDF. Some of their best work I think is in the methane category. You might have heard of WWF right. World Wildlife Fund. They have the best marketing and celebrity kind of connections. Sierra Club has the most membership of anything so they have a big sway in local politics and stuff like that. NRDC, Natural Resource Defense Fund, has the best lawyers. They focus on litigation and they file suits and then they try to change regulatory stuff.
Brian Truglio: Yeah they’re usually the ones that other organizations partner with when they have specific legal things that they file.
Fedor Kossakovski: And so these are all kind of everyone’s you know what they’re good at and what they kind of go for and EDF has the best business ties. They have a very pragmatic approach to trying to align environmental and business goals.
Brian Truglio: They’re trying to bring research together with industry to make the most difference.
Fedor Kossakovski: And so around 2010 2011 2012, EDF actually I think very astutely picked up on this methane issue that the growing natural gas infrastructure with leaking methane was a place that both environmentalists and businesses could get along right to prevent this very potent greenhouse gas from getting out. You know the environmentalists would be happy about that but also industry would be happy because it’s their product right there protecting it.
Brian Truglio: They’re losing product, exactly.
Fedor Kossakovski: And so they start researching this and I think they quickly understood the inventories that the companies submit to the EPA are garbage basically. It’s an average based on leakiness right. It’s not really useful for determining where the leaks are. It’s like saying oh well somewhere in my apartment complex there’s two killers living you know but which one? I wanna know who it is! Something like that. One of the things that EDF wanted to do was to figure out just how leaky these pipes are and not just how leaky but where the leaks are so they could work with the environmentalists and the industry to plug those leaks. And so EDF partnered with Google and with Colorado State Professor Joe von Fisher and they figured out a way to map it. Basically Joe worked with EDF and they all work together with Google to add sensors to Google Map cars. You know the ones that just drive around and do the Street View and mapping and stuff and they just drove around towns and they collected how much methane was in the air.
Brian Truglio: So as the cars which are just kind of updating the Google Maps are driving around they’re also sucking in information about how much methane it’s sniffing in the air. Interesting.
Fedor Kossakovski: Exactly. But if you think about it this doesn’t solve your problem because it’s like driving through smoke. Right? Where’s it coming from? You’re just driving through a cloud. If there’s more of it suddenly which again you can’t see or smell it’s just your sensors picking it up, where’s it coming from? It’s how do you know where it is. So I came in on this project as an intern working for EDF, disclaimer. I got to go to Colorado State and meet Joe, this professor, and he was showing us how he was trying to figure out where the leaks are from these like plumes these methane plumes he was detecting. And so what he literally was doing was he setting off smoke bombs on campus either near buildings or trees and figuring out how smoke which he could see then how it moved and how it interacted with things in the environment so that then he could reverse engineer an algorithm so that if he had the plume where did it come from? Where is the leak? Right. So if you have the end data of the spill you could figure out where the spill was coming from. Right. So that’s sort of what he did and he managed to do that pretty well with a pretty high accuracy. If you’re driving around town over and over you get all this data of different methane levels in your spot wherever you’re driving through and then he can use that and backtrack and figure out where that leak was. It was close enough to be helpful. Right. It was it was close enough that it wasn’t an average it was like well OK within these hundred feet let’s say right it’s a 90 percent chance there’s a there’s a leak there.
Brian Truglio: So close enough to tell you where you should go back and investigate.
Fedor Kossakovski: Exactly exactly and the utilities have handheld little backpack sniffers thing that kind of then they send out someone to really track down where it is and plug up the hole. And so I was working on we had all these maps and I worked on the team of how do we communicate this? How do we overlay it onto the Google maps and show people where the leaks are? Those issues of like you don’t want to scare people because these aren’t leaks that are going to explode. These are very small amounts of natural gas but there’s a lot of them. And so all of that together is bad for the environment maybe not explosive. But it was all this you know, and then what should people will do after? Anyway, we put all these maps together. Some interesting stuff where like older cities like Boston which is the first place they imaged has got rusty old pipes. In some places I mean that cast iron pipes where the actual iron has rusted out entirely and the pipe is just the rust. You can imagine that’s pretty leaky, it’s just iron oxide or whatever. It’s just so leaky it’s so leaky. And then newer cities like Indianapolis they use stuff like PVC pipes like other plastic pipes or other kinds of pipes or they’re just newer and so they have fewer leaks.
Brian Truglio: As well I saw a diagram to that the sealant in between the junctions as well in these old gas pipes again in the Boston area is a sealant that’s mostly degraded if it’s been there for a long period of time. So again you know all these materials in the older systems are they’re breaking down or have already broken down and that’s creating leaks.
Fedor Kossakovski: Absolutely. Since I worked there which was summer of 2013 when they were just about to release, i think they release in 2014 maybe 2015 these maps, they’ve done more cities you know. They’ve done Birmingham, they’ve done Dallas, they’ve done Chicago, L.A. If you live in big city they’ve probably done it. And these are places you can find your neighborhood on. I remember when I was living up in Boston I went and when I say I moved there I was like oh I remember I can look up how bad you know my area is for methane. And these are places you know if you find a leak on the website, which is edf.org/climate/methanemaps, if you find a leak you can call your utility and let them know. I mean they will fix it they’ll want to fix it. They want to save themselves some money and that’s something you could actually do, not just write your congressman. It’s actually some kind of a fact you could have.
Brian Truglio: Well and it should be said too that this data has actually been used I know in New Jersey I believe in the Newark area or at least greater metropolitan New York area. They went to the state and said hey we need to update our infrastructure. We need this amount of money. This is why because look at how much methane is coming out of our system. And thankfully they did the right thing. They allocated the money. And now that the natural gas delivery infrastructure is being updated. So that may mean which I think is their ultimate goal in doing all this right.
Fedor Kossakovski: Yeah absolutely and I think it all comes down to like going from inventorying you know the bottom up inventory to the top down inventories and that’s really what this whole push is. Science isn’t the fastest moving thing. So like when you know Joe was making these algorithms and working on the sensors and stuff back in 2012 2013 and 2014, only last year did they publish a paper explaining the methodology and all that kind of stuff. So you know it’s out there now more people are getting interested in doing these top down inventories.
Brian Truglio: Observed methane.
Fedor Kossakovski: Exactly. Just actually observing it. And EDF is actually building and launching their own satellite to continue doing this methane monitoring. It’s called MethaneSAT. They’ve got a private satellite builder to make them a satellite and they’ll launch in a few years.
Brian Truglio: Wow. When is that going to launch?
Fedor Kossakovski: I believe it’s 2019 or 2020? So it’s like very soon. Fred Krupp the president of EDF did a TED talk about it recently. It’s very inspiring to see an organization not waiting for a governmental action and doing the research for it and just going out and doing it themselves. You know EPA right now is pushing against these things even though the industry itself sees the benefit. You know it seems like the only one against this right now is the EPA and methane regulation and inventory and rules for the industry that have to submit their inventories of methane leakage, all that is stuck in court right now and probably will get overturned and they will have to do it. But we shouldn’t be waiting. Airborne and space borne measurement is the best way to be tracking these globally, the methane leakage, and also then going locally and doing it with again airborne stuff.
Brian Truglio: The European Space Agency launched a satellite to last year is that right?
Fedor Kossakovski: Yeah yeah. On one of their satellites, they have an instrument called Tropomi, which is also gearing up to be delivering that data now. The MethaneSAT that EDF wants to launch will have even better resolution. It will focus I think exclusively on methane whereas the satellite that Tropomi the instrument is on is also measuring other stuff I believe.
Brian Truglio: Yeah you’re exactly right. The European satellite is really a like a greenhouse gas satellite, covers a whole bunch of them and you’re right the methane resolution how well it can actually pinpoint sources on the ground is still quite broad. But again better then nothing. And JPL as an airborne methane detection system that they use.
Fedor Kossakovski: It’s called AVIRIS. It’s a spectrometer that can do a lot of different kinds of gasses and measure them from a plane looking downward but it can also do methane which is in California especially they’re using a lot for figuring out where these leaks are and plugging them working with So Cal Gas and stuff. We profiled them on PBS NewsHour recently.
Brian Truglio: Yeah and interestingly Riley Duren who is the head of that program had an interesting metaphor. He was saying it’s like we’re taking our first methane checkup for the state. He has a great line too where he says you know you can’t manage what you can’t measure. All of these systems are directly observing methane. We’re actually now actually looking for it actually measuring it. And this is the first step in addressing this problem and answering the question where is all the methane coming from? But JPL does want to put this device onto a satellite and put it in space.
Fedor Kossakovski: Yeah. And in conclusion I think there’s a lot we talked about here but I think the main thing to know is exactly what you’re saying. You know we don’t quite even know how bad a problem it is. We need to do a little bit more and it’s a really important greenhouse gas to monitor not only because it has such a big impact but also because we can actually do something about it. And there is the maybe not political will right now but at least the entrepreneurial will to take care of that right. And it actually makes sense for businesses to take care of it too. In my opinion I think we should be continuing to pursue methane as a fuel because of the fact that it is the cleanest burning hydrocarbon that we can burn as we talked about. And if we do have ways of setting up these systems with very little leakage it’s a big plus for the environment.
Brian Truglio: Yeah it is an urgent problem. The estimates right now are that anywhere from a quarter to a fifth of the warming that we’re currently experiencing can actually be attributed to methane. And I remember in one of our first conversations with Riley Duren he said you know think about it this way the more methane that we put into the atmosphere kind of the less runway we have for dealing with the carbon dioxide warming problem. So the CO2 warming problem, 100 year problem which requires big you know shifts to our infrastructure. But we might not have the luxury of dealing with that long term warming problem if we don’t deal with the short term methane warming problem because the methane is sort of supercharging the heating. The more we supercharge it the quicker we’re going to warm the planet and the less time essentially we have to deal with the long term warming. And the second thing that should be said too is that you know the big advantage is because it’s only up there for a decade we can actually see fairly quick results. In other words the carbon dioxide problem is longer term, it’s a bigger ship and it’s you know to turn that one around takes a lot more time. Methane because it does break down so quickly it’s a problem where we can see results within our own lifetime. So it’s a problem that if we tackle I think people can feel like we are making progress when we’re talking about ways of mitigating climate change.
Fedor Kossakovski: It’s a fascinating topic and we could go for another two hours.
Brian Truglio: All right. Good job Fedor.
Fedor Kossakovski: Thank you. Thank you. We talk about it all the time but I think it’s so interesting that I want to keep talking to people about it.
Brian Truglio: Think we hashed it out?
Fedor Kossakovski: Think we tried.
Brian Truglio: Thanks again for listening as usual go to our website, rate, review, follow us, subscribe to our newsletter. And as always if you have any topics that you would like us to hash out feel free to send them to us. I’m at @btruglio on Twitter.
Fedor Kossakovski: I’m at @SciFedor.
Brian Truglio: And our website is milesobrien.com.
Fedor Kossakovski: That’s right.
Brian Truglio: Thanks very much for listening.
Fedor Kossakovski: Ciao.
Banner image credit: Ken Doerr | Flickr.
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