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UCalgary launches Centre for Smart Emissions Sensing Technologies

In response to Alberta's Climate Leadership Plan, researchers will work to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas sector

Chris Hugenholtz, an associate professor in the Department of Geography, seen here with his drone technology, is director and head researcher of the newly established Centre For Smart Emissions Sensing Technologies. Riley Brandt

By Heath McCoy
February 1, 2018

Under its new Climate Leadership Plan, the Alberta Government has pledged a 45 per cent reduction of harmful methane emissions from its oil and gas sector by 2025. Taking the lead on meeting this goal, the University of Calgary has launched its Centre for Smart Emissions Sensing Technologies (SENST).

SENST will be a platform for developing new and improved technologies aimed at better detecting and measuring methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. It will also guide investment in new smart technology solutions for reducing methane emissions. SENST will seek to lower the oil and gas sector’s carbon footprint by accelerating made-in-Canada methane-sensing solutions.

SENST was established with the support of the federal government, through a $400,000 investment from Western Economic Diversification Canada. Funding from other partners and the University of Calgary is also contributing to SENST.

“One of the challenges we face in achieving reductions from the oil and gas sector is that we don’t always know where all the emissions are coming from or how much gas is leaking into the atmosphere,” says Chris Hugenholtz, director and head researcher of SENST and an associate professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Geography. “To better detect these hidden emissions, we need to develop new technology and new measurement systems that will help find them faster and cost-effectively, and allow us to quantify emission rates. This will inform decisions about reducing emissions.”

Among SENST’s goals will be the creation of smart methane sensing systems with embedded intelligence, which fuse multi-sensory data with analytics to better find and quantify methane emissions. A primary focus will be developing next generation scalable sensing technology capable of addressing the geographic scale of methane emissions from Western Canada’s massive oil and gas network. This will include ground-based networks of fixed sensors and mobile sensing systems like vehicles, drones, aircraft, and satellites.

Another focus area will be advancing sensing using robotic drones. These drones, embedded with artificial intelligence, will essentially act as “sniffer dogs,” says Hugenholtz, finding hidden emission sources with minimal human input.

SENST will aim to develop and mature its technologies through a process of controlled testing. This will involve releasing small, contained quantities of methane into the atmosphere and then putting the sensing technologies to work, allowing researchers to gauge their performance and make improvements. This testing is a critical step in developing the sensing technology needed to reduce emissions, says Hugenholtz.  

“Through SENST we have an opportunity to advance technology and knowledge-based innovations that lead to emissions reduction,” says Hugenholtz. “We’re keen to help researchers, entrepreneurs, and established companies translate their concepts and prototypes into commercial products and services.”

He adds: “There’s no silver bullet technology that’s going to solve all the emissions problems. It’s going to take a lot of dedicated research and testing to define the operational niches of different technologies so that we can prescribe the right tools for the job. SENST is here to support and accelerate this process.”