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Looking for Methane Leaks without Leaving Home

October 2, 2020
Hugo Budd
Class of 2023

Meter reader wires

This summer I worked with the Jackson Lab to develop a method to quantify methane emissions from residential natural gas-fired appliances. My task was to produce a device that could measure a home’s natural gas consumption with high resolution (20 second intervals) and precision. I was looking forward to expanding my skills in microcontroller development and to use those on a real-life scenario, as well as gaining some experience doing energy research.

My project was originally supposed to involve field sampling of study participants’ homes. My team and I were to measure device methane output with a spectrometer, accounting for different states of operation. However, since it was not possible for me to conduct field work this year, I instead focused on developing this device from my home.

Because of the ecological and physical dangers of a methane leak, we could not tamper with the gas meters, nor did we have much luck with smart meters. We ended up using a camera to record the gas meter dials with an Arduino and then processing those images later. I did not anticipate how difficult it would be to get useable images from the image sensor. Complicating factors were understanding and working with the output format of the sensor and the low processing power and memory of the Arduino. I had to learn a lot about how computers interpret and store color which was really interesting. That is definitely not a skill I would have anticipated going into research on natural gas consumption.

Decoding the camera images took way longer than I anticipated so I was not able to get my project to a place where it could record reliable data. I am able to capture long-term data and convert it to a readable format. I am currently working on an algorithm that can read these pictures. I definitely learned a lot about electrical engineering, color processing, and microcontrollers. I also think that this device will produce results!