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Transfer Spotlight: Dial Emissions Monitoring Utah State team's lidar seeks out methane in the atmosphere

By Eric Peterson
Planet-Profit Report
September 07, 2010

COMPANY: DIAL Emissions Monitoring (www.energydynamicslab.com)

RESEARCH CONNECTIONS: Energy Dynamics Laboratory, Utah State University, Logan Utah

FOUNDED: 2010

LIFTOFF: This spring, Michael Wojcik led a charge into making a better light detection and ranging system, more commonly known as lidar, to detect pollution in the atmosphere. “Lidar is the laser version of radar,” explains Wojcik, branch lead for environmental measurement at the Energy Dynamics Laboratory, a nonprofit research corporation owned by Utah State University focused on renewable and advanced energy technology. “Instead of using photons with wavelengths of hundreds of meters, you're using wavelengths of hundreds of nanometers.” Instead of planes and other flying objects, lidar detects motes of dust and molecules as small as a micron across.”

Specifically, Wojcik has been developing differential absorption lidar technology, or DIAL. “DIAL has been around since the mid-'70s,” he says. “It was conceived specifically to look for chemicals in the atmosphere”—different chemicals respond to different wavelengths of lidar.

Wojcik and his colleagues have been developing a lidar system that targets methane. “Our system should have a range of about a mile and every 10 yards you'll be able to see what the concentration of methane is.”

The goal is making a smaller, lighter, and cheaper version of the current best-available technology. Currently available DIAL systems are huge truck-mounted devices that cost as much as $15,000 a day. To make matters worse for potential U.S. and Canadian users, they're only available from two providers in the U.K., adding a premium to bringing them across the Atlantic.

The primary business model is based on providing cost-effective tool for natural-gas facilities to measure their product loss and repair their facility to minimize it. But it's an involved process, Wojcik admits. “It takes two years of wandering around your facility and tightening every nut and bolt until you see significant savings.” Whether the process is profitable or not, he adds, “depends on so many variables,” like the price of natural gas and how much the repairs cost.

Regardless, a mere four months after Wojcik initiated his research, his group are in the process of developing a business plan as part of their entry into the Rocky Mountain Cleantech Open. Wojcik's hope is to raise funds to construct a prototype that they can then bring to a potential buyer—most likely and oil and gas company—or they can use to spin the group off as an independent startup. “We've demonstrated all of the key concepts and are looking for funding,” says Wojcik, noting that the Cleantech Open experience “helps us drive the technology in a commercial direction.”

THE PLAYERS: Wojcik is working with two of his fellow employees at the Energy Dynamics Lab: Kori Moore, environmental engineer, and James May, director of special projects.

THE MARKET: Currently, the North American DIAL market is very small, based on the prohibitive costs and lack of a government mandate or cap-and-trade policy, but the market dynamics could shift if such policies. “That's more the regulatory use of the technology, and not the industry use,” says Wojcik, noting that the EPA and other countries' regulatory agencies could be top customers if such policies ever come to pass.

But May believes innovation will be the key to growing the market. “If we can build something that's small and light and cheap, we may be able to sell 100 or 200 a year, rather than have contractors provide DIAL services,” he says.

THE FINANCING: DIAL Emissions Monitoring has been internally financed by the Energy Dynamics Lab and undisclosed angel investors. The audience afforded by the Cleantech Open is a huge plus for future fundraising, says May. “You don't have to win the competition to get in front of investors.”

 

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