'Blimp-like' craft to monitor oil field emissions
A 270-foot-long silver dirigible-like structure may soon 'park' in the stratosphere above New Mexico oil fields to monitor methane, part of a growing effort in the Mountain West to track the potent heat-trapping gas that leaks from oil and gas infrastructure.
The helium structure – also known as a high-altitude platform station, or HAPS – is the work of the New Mexico-based company Sceye, and it's being tested as part of a collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of New Mexico, as first reported by the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Sceye CEO and Founder Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen says the solar-powered HAPS can hover at about 65,000 feet over oil and gas fields and stay there, whereas drones must come down and satellites move. The onboard equipment can see methane particles within a meter of the source in real time and observe the rate of emission, he says, which could dramatically improve monitoring of the pollutant.
“We can see the difference between, ‘Is it the pipeline that’s leaking or the cow standing next to it?’ – understood as, we can see the specific emitter,” Frandsen said.
The EPA, Sceye, and the New Mexico departments of environment and economic development signed a memorandum of understanding in 2021 to launch the five-year study.
New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said in a statement in 2021 that the partnership "will increase our scientific understanding of climate change and air pollution to inform our ambitious policymaking.”
Sceye's test monitoring process with the EPA and state departments begins in October, and its HAPS could take to the stratosphere on missions by the end of 2023.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently reported that 2021 saw the biggest annual spike in atmospheric methane levels on record. The gas is roughly 25 times more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Frandsen hopes to also use HAPS to help detect wildfires, improve topographical mapping, monitor human trafficking, and provide expanded internet access.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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