Change the world


This article appeared in the Herald of 16 August 2017 written by Guy Rogers.

A Nelson Mandela University research institute is using a R1-million “ghost buster” device to track methane emissions around the metro in what could be a first step towards countering hazards posed by the gas and harvesting clean energy from it.

Picture: MAARTEN DE WIT MOBILE RESEARCH: Masters student Richard Campbell and the methane detector mounted in a bakkie

The space age methane detector is the first to be brought into Africa from the US and is being deployed by a team from the Earth Stewardship Science department at NMU.

The survey was the start of a bigger study with huge potential benefits, the professor of Earth Stewardship Science and director of the African Earth Observation Network at NMU, Professor Maarten de Wit, said yesterday.

“Besides hazard concerns and the harvesting potential, methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times stronger than CO2 [carbon dioxide], so knowing where leaks are will allow emitters to fix them and, if they don’t, for the authorities to levy a tax on them.” Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor had shown a lot of interest in the instrument when she visited NMU to launch National Science Week last week, De Wit said.

“She said we should be deploying it around the country.”

De Wit said his team had initially bought the device to aid their work in the Karoo, where they have been contracted by Bhisho to undertake a pre-fracking baseline study.

The study records a range of environmental and social indicators with the aim that any costs and benefits of fracking, if it is approved, can be measured against them.

It had pinpointed a number of wells left behind after oil and gas drilling in the 1960s by the state-owned Soekor exploration agency, most of which were leaking methane, he said.

The methane detector was manufactured by Picarro, a company in Santa Clara, California. Following the start of commercial production four years ago, it has been snapped up by city authorities and the industrial sector in the US and Europe.

Mining authorities used to place canaries in mines to check methane levels. The canaries keeled over at about a 16% oxygen level, indicating it was time to leave.

In South Africa, the danger of methane was highlighted in February when six people working in a Durban naval base sewer died.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, methane leaks were pinpointed at the Fishwater Flats waste water treatment works near the Swartkops Estuary, the Arlington waste disposal site in Victoria Drive and near the Kempston and Harrower roads intersection west of the North End Lake.

De Wit said at Arlington, the per second reading “reached as high as 13ppm driving across the top of the dump, equating to a significant volume of gas per day”.

The highest reading was measured at Fishwater Flats. “The methane can be identified along the N2 and on windy days this pollution is intense,” he said.

It was unclear what the source of the North End leak was, he said.

“It is a mystery, but Richard Campbell (Master's student) and Divan Stroebel (PhD student and research associate), will follow up soon.”

The eThikweni metro in Kwa-Zulu-Natal is leading the way nationally with harvesting landfill gas.

The programme generates points to be traded on the international emissions trading market and is driven by the metro in conjunction with the Landfill Conservancies consultancy.

Landfill Conservancies manager Richard Winn said they were harvesting 7.5MW from two main landfills.

“This energy is used to generate electricity which goes into the grid and also via flaring to generate hot water and to dry recyclables as this is one of the main challenges in recycling.”

Apart from the 800 landfills across the country, mines, farms, hot springs and a range of other sources featuring composting or the accumulation of waste could all be harvested for clean energy.

“If we properly harnessed all human-generated gas, we would not have to frack,” Winn said.

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