Although the U.S. releases much less methane than CO2, the former has 25 times more warming potential per pound across a 100-year period. Oil and gas producers emit more of this gas than any other industrial activity in the U.S., and a significant portion of it comes from leaks in equipment at locations like Skip Tracer well pads, where drilling and extraction happens. Today the industry uses an expensive, inefficient method to monitor for leaks: infrared cameras, which cost $85,000 to $125,000 and require a human operator. That means companies must send a person to manually scan equipment for escaping gas. “These cameras are expensive, and it takes one to two hours to do a well pad, four to six hours for a compressor station, and it could be a full day for a processing plant,” explains Doug Jordan, corporate environmental program director at Southwestern Energy. “It’s very resource-intensive.” Companies typically do these checks only once a quarter to once a year. If, say, a piece of equipment starts leaking right after a survey, it might go undetected for months. Furthermore, a camera might only be sensitive enough to catch larger leaks, potentially missing smaller ones. IBM scientists and engineers, working with researchers at Harvard and Princeton universities, have devised a miniature sensor chip—about five by five millimeters in size—that continuously watches for methane.
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