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Google Street View Cars Used to Detect Urban Methane Leaks, Help Fight Climate Change

Mar 23, 2017 12:06 PM EDT
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What could be another use for Google Street View cars aside from providing images of streets for a comprehensive mapping system? The cars can also help alleviate climate change by detecting sources of methane leaks.

Some Google Street View cars were equipped with methane analyzers. The fleet will be used by researchers from Colorado State University to detect invisible methane leaks from natural sources underneath the streets. The method of detecting methane with the help of the mapping cars was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Google Earth Outreach, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Joe von Fisher of CSU collaborated for the project. The data collected by the study will aid advocacy groups to locate methane leaks to reduce the leaks faster. The Google Street View cars that are specially equipped with methane detectors are a faster, easier and cheaper way to find sources or leaks.

Methane analyzers were installed in three Google Street View cars that drive around Boston, Staten Island, New York, and Vermont. Some of these places have old and corrosion-prone distribution lines where leaks occurred, according to a press release from EurekAlert.

Methane has 80 percent more warming power compared to carbon dioxide in over a 20-year timeframe. This makes it a potent greenhouse gas. Today, many organizations are working towards managing low-level leaks that could build up in the coming years.

"This is a huge challenge that almost nobody had been thinking about. Now we're finding out just how widespread these leaks are," von Fischer said in a statement. "The faster you fix them, the bigger the environmental benefits are. But utilities and regulators didn't have the data to focus their efforts. That's where we come in. Our goal is to make it faster, cheaper and easier to find and measure methane leaks from natural gas lines to help accelerate crucial repairs."

The project targets invisible leaks in urban areas where natural gas distribution pipelines are located below the ground. The project is also considered the first of its kind and is expected to produce the most comprehensive list of methane leak sources in cities.

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