New Robot Could Fight Climate Change By Spotting Methane Leaks With Lasers


The Gasbot.

The Gasbot.

CREDIT: Orebo University, Sweden

Researchers at Orebo University in Sweden are working on a robot that can help fight climate change by spotting methane leaks in landfills. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, able to force 22 to 33 times more warming than carbon dioxide on a pound-for-pound comparison. And the impact of methane leaks from decaying garbage in landfills is under-appreciated: when correctly accounted for, landfills are the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, just behind electricity generation, transportation, and factories.

So far, the job of sniffing out methane leaks in landfills has fallen to actual human workers who have to hike around the garbage dumps. But according to IEEE Spectrum, the Gasbot may relieve the unfortunate souls tasked with that particular responsibility:

Gasbot is a project from the AASS Research Centre at Orebro University in Sweden. It’s a Clearpath Robotics Husky A200 mobile robot (awarded for free through Clearpath’s Partner Program) equipped with a pair of laser scanners, a GPS, and a remote gas sensor. Specifically, we’re talking about a Tunable Laser (LASER!) Absorption Spectrometer, which provides integral concentration measurements of gasses over the path of the laser beam. All you have to do is let Gasbot roam around a site where you think you might have gas leaks, and it will build up a map of concentrations and locations for you, while you see how many scented candles it takes to numb your olfactory centers.

That still leaves the question of what to do about the methane, of course. One option is to capture as much of the leaking gas from landfills as possible and then burn it for power generation. That’s what the Manatee County Lena Road Landfill in Florida will be doing — they’re constructing a power plant that will run off methane produced from the landfill’s garbage to provide electricity for a local wastewater treatment facility.

Unfortunately, burning or otherwise capturing methane form existing landfills is also logistically difficult, and even under the best circumstances the efficiency of capture can be pretty low. And if the methane is burned for a profit, that can lead to a perverse situation in which the landfill actually tries to maximize methane emissions, thus increasing the amount of leaks it fails to capture in the final analysis.

Now, if Gasbot becomes commercially scalable, it will hopefully improve that situation. But ultimately, the best solution to this problem is to just avoid sending the garbage to the landfill in the first place. There’s always recycling, and another option is constructing energy-from-waste (EfW) facilities. They’re power plants specifically designed to take in garbage, contain it, and burn the methane produced in an environmentally sound manner. Puerto Rico is actually working on a 77 megawatt EfW plant in Arecibo right now, which when finished should be able to take in over 2,100 tons of garbage a day and produce power for more than 76,000 homes.

In the meantime, Gasbot is making its way through the latter stages of development. IEEE Spectrum reports that it’s already been successfully tested in a decommissioned landfill and in an underground tunnel where it located a leaking gas pipe. But the researchers still need to improve its localizing ability, and the robot needs to get better an maneuvering around obstacles and operating on its own over several square kilometers for several days.