Leaping towards sustainability with the help of technology, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has teamed up with Google Earth Outreach to engineer a car that can detect invisible methane gas floating in the air. Up until now, there are numerous technical and computational challenges to measuring methane, not to mention the complicated methodologies used to collect, analyze and publicize the data. Google’s Street View mapping cars are providing what promises to be a faster and cheaper way of finding and assessing methane leaks.

Google Street View mapping cars, equipped with methane detectors and analyzers, are currently enabling Colorado State University (CSU) researchers to actually see the invisible methane leaks from natural gas lines.

methane leaks

A methane leak map from one of the pilot studies showing small, medium and large leak locations in Boston. EDF

The project is led by CSU’s Associate Professor of Biology Joe von Fischer in partnership with EDF and Google. Von Fischer’s co-authors include Dan Cooley, a researcher at the university’s Statistics Department, Atmospheric Scientist Russ Schumacher, and Jay Ham, a researcher in soil and crop sciences, as well as experts from University of Northern Colorado and the nonprofit science collective Conservation Science Partners.

Even though methane is the main ingredient in natural gas, which is often used to heat up stones, ovens and houses, if left free to mix in the air, methane can contribute significantly to climate change and global warming. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 84 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe.