To a casual observer, it looks like someone barnstorming several hundred feet above sparsely populated Central California terrain in a small plane.
But it’s UC Davis atmospheric researchers surveying Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s 600 miles of natural gas pipelines between Sonoma and Fresno in a single-engine Mooney TLS packed with scientific instruments designed to sniff out leaks of methane, a potent source of global warming.
Their mission: Find gas leaks several miles downwind from the source cheap and fast, then dispatch ground crews to fix the problem and stop more pollution from spewing into the air.
The $295,000 experimental project is funded by the industry organization Pipeline Research Council International, with principal backing from PG&E. Data collected during the project will be used by PG&E to improve pipeline safety at less cost than with other available aerial survey methods including helicopters.
“Patrol planes fly more than 100 mph,” Stephen Conley, an atmospheric scientist at UC Davis, said in an interview. “A helicopter goes about 50 mph and is 10 times more costly per mile to operate.”
“Of course, our planes are also modified to carry the technology,” he added, “including a greenhouse gas analyzer, software and a GPS system to get accurate wind readings.”
The technology used in the project, which began in 2011 and is expected to end next year, could be adopted by pipeline operators across the nation and around the world. The technology developed by Conley and UC Davis atmospheric scientist Ian Faloona could also help identify ruptured gas lines in the aftermath of a disaster such as a massive earthquake.
“We could survey thousands of miles of gas transmission lines in a matter of days,” Conley said. “The same kind of effort would take a year with current technology.”
The bottom line: “At the end of this project, the software for this technology will go into the public domain,” Conley said. “We believe it could result in huge cost savings for utilities and their customers.”