Google's Street View cars are sniffing out methane leaks.
A fleet of sensor-equipped cars is taking a whiff of hard-to-detect methane. Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

In a new collaboration, the tech giant is sniffing out emissions in a handful of American cities.

Methane is pretty much invisible to humans’ senses of sight and smell. As the second most prevalent greenhouse gas in America, methane leaks pose a significant challenge in the fight against climate change—mostly due to the fact that they are notoriously hard to detect.

Since our human senses don’t tingle at the hint of a methane drain, a team of scientists and technology experts have figured out a way to effectively play ‘spot the leak.’ Part of a collaboration with Google, researchers from the Environmental Defense Fund and Colorado State University have been using the tech giant’s Street View cars to trail methane levels in big cities across the U.S.

The project, which is described in a research paper published by the American Chemical Society in the Environmental Science and Technology journal this week, involves equipping Street View cars with sensors to chase down methane leaks under metropolitan streets.

The problem with methane leaks can be traced back to the 19th century and a couple of feet below the streets of American cities like Boston and Chicago, where thousands of miles of cast-iron and steel pipes are buried. Originally built to host cooking fuel, the often-outdated infrastructure also distributes natural gas to homes—and, in many areas, results in harmful leaks in the process. According to the paper, methane contains 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, but replacing even a mile of the pipes can cost up to $2 million. The researchers conclude that a tracking model could help utility companies prioritize serious leaks and tackle potential problems more quickly.

The paper argues that urban natural gas pipelines haven’t received much academic attention, and the problem is exacerbated by the lack of reliable data concerning methane leaks. In an interview with the Washington Post, the lead researcher Joseph von Fischer pointed out that there have only been “a handful of studies” on the subject matter, explaining that it’s “very labor-intensive to measure the leaks from the distribution system.”

The fleet of cars is one way to make that easier. The sensor-equipped cars roamed through Boston, Burlington, Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, and Staten Island and Syracuse in New York. The researchers then mapped the results, illustrating clusters of leaks.

Boston: Older pipes, more leaks (Environmental Defense Fund)
Indianapolis: Newer pipes, fewer leaks (Environmental Defense Fund)

As depicted in the maps above, there’s a striking difference between Boston and Indianapolis. The researchers found that the leaks tend to cluster in cities with older pipes, like Boston, which saw hundreds of thousands of leaks. Indianapolis, which overhauled its pipes in the 1980s, recorded less than a dozen leaks.

These maps can be extremely helpful as their data offers a guide for prioritizing gas line replacements. With direct input from the team’s early research, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities approved a three-year, $905 million plan to replace up to 510 miles of its old pipeline. While you’ll only see these cars in a handful of cities so far, Google is currently setting up more cars to map other parts of the country.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Passengers line up for a bullet train at a platform in Tokyo Station.
    Transportation

    The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations

    The nation’s famed mastery of rail travel has been aided by some subtle behavioral tricks.

  2. The Salk Institute, near San Diego
    Design

    This Is Your Brain on Architecture

    In her new book, Sarah Williams Goldhagen presents scientific evidence for why some buildings delight us and others—too many of them—disappoint.

  3. A detail from a 1942 British Mandate map of Haifa, now a city in Israel.
    Maps

    Mapping Palestine Before Israel

    A new open-source project uses British historical maps to reveal what Palestine looked like before 1948.

  4. A person walks past the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
    Equity

    Revisiting the New Urban Crisis

    The shift toward a more inclusive urbanism has begun. But it will require time, commitment from city institutions, and political agency at the local level.

  5. New homes under construction in St. George, Utah, in 2013
    Environment

    America's Fastest-Growing Urban Area Has a Water Problem

    As St. George, Utah grows, it will have to cut down on its high water consumption or pay handsomely for it—or both.