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Under the streets of U.S. cities, aging pipes are leaking methane. Google Street View cars equipped with innovative sensors sniffed out hundreds of minor gas leaks in a pilot mapping program 

Google’s Latest Project: Mapping Gas Leaks in U.S. Cities

August 5, 2014

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Under the streets of U.S. cities, aging pipes are leaking methane. Google Street View cars equipped with innovative sensors sniffed out hundreds of minor gas leaks in a pilot mapping program in Boston, Staten Island, and Indianapolis. Partnering with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and local utility companies, Google Earth Outreach found more leaks—an average of one leak per every mile driven—in the Northeast, where the local infrastructure was older.

These chronic small leaks are not a safety threat, but they add up to a lot of escaped methane—a potent greenhouse gas and source of urban smog—and may develop into larger, more dangerous leaks. EDF and Google Earth Outreach released a detailed set of interactive maps that compare the gas systems in the three cities. At a July 16 news conference, EDF chief scientist Steven Hamburg explained that the cars’ cutting-edge sensors could provide an important tool for deciding where to modernize aging pipelines.

Cornell geologist Lou Derry spoke with the Christian Science Monitor about the mapping project and its successful use of new sensing technology:

The release of these findings in a user-friendly format could help to secure public buy-in for costly infrastructure improvements, Derry suggests. Replacing pipelines “is expensive, nobody wants to pay for it, and nobody wants to have their street dug up,” he explains. The visualizations offered by the EDF maps could persuade the public to put up with rate increases and the nuisance of lengthy construction projects to overhaul corroding pipelines.

The most encouraging aspect of this study, Derry says, is its role as an illustration of the technological leap in sensing capabilities. Until just a few years ago, these measurements would have been collected by hand and individually processed in the laboratory, he says. Today, for about $50,000, researchers can affix a sensor capable of taking a reading every second to the roof of a car or the wing of an airplane.

The same technology could be used to monitor upgraded gas systems, Derry said, or to measure other emissions like carbon dioxide.

Read more in the Christian Science Monitor.