University of Waterloo methane researchers team up in urgent battle against climate change

Tuesday, January 3, 2023
By Brian Caldwell
Faculty of Engineering

Those spectacular shooting flames associated with oil and gas production aren’t doing a good enough job of protecting the environment.

Known as flares, they play an important role in the reduction of greenhouse gases fueling climate change by converting methane that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere into much less harmful carbon dioxide (CO2).

But recent studies suggest that flares in oil and gas fields are considerably less efficient than previously thought, a discrepancy that could be responsible for additional annual emissions equivalent to those produced by up to 8.8 million cars in the United States alone.

Members of a University of Waterloo research team pose with a helicopter used for airborne hyperspectral measurements of methane

Waterloo researchers with a helicopter used for airborne hyperspectral measurements of methane. From left are Dr. Kyle Daun, Michael Nagorski, Augustine Wigle, Dr. Paule Lapeyre and Daniel Blackmore.

To help tackle that urgent problem, a research team led by WIN Member Dr. Kyle Daun, an engineering professor at the University of Waterloo, is working with a sophisticated infrared camera to more accurately measure how well flares convert methane into CO2.

“We are rapidly approaching a climactic tipping point, in some ways much faster than scientists thought was possible,” he says. “We must act now. This must be our top priority.”

The $650,000 hyperspectral camera - on loan from the Department of National Defence and the only one of its kind in Canada – works by generating thousands of images, each at a different wavelength, to distinguish different gases across a scene.

Deploying the camera for methane measurement is part of FlareNet, a strategic network of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada involving researchers from five universities and the National Research Council.

A hyperspectral image of a flare at a refinery shows a plume of unburned hydrocarbons, which is invisible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of a flare at a refinery shows a plume of unburned hydrocarbons that is invisible to the naked eye.

“Issues like climate change are inherently multidisciplinary and require experts from different backgrounds to work together,” says Daun, a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering. “In the case of FlareNet, we have experts in fluid mechanics, thermal radiation, aerosols and combustion all working together to solve a common problem.”  

Better data is crucial to reaching a 2030 target to reduce 2012 methane emission levels in the Canadian oil and gas industry by 75 per cent, part of the country’s climate commitment under the Paris Accord.

Government regulators also need tools to assess whether targets are being met and climate scientists require accurate nationwide methane inventories to model the potential impacts of global warming on climate change

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