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Not Your Grandpa's RV: This Roving Lab Tracks Air Pollution

Posted: May 18, 2013

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Atmospheric scientist Ira Leifer installed special air sensors on a camper, then drove from Florida to California, measuring methane levels all along the way. More than 6,000 readings later, he found some noticeable spikes, especially around petrochemical plants and urban areas like Los Angeles.

Ira Leifer, next to an RV he has outfitted with methane sensors and other equipment to sniff the air.

Ira Leifer, next to an RV he has outfitted with methane sensors and other equipment to sniff the air. Richard Harris

This map shows methane measurements Ira Leifer took as he drove in his RV around the Los Angeles basin. Notice the pronounced spike in levels of methane around the La Brea Tar Pits in the center of the image. Geological faults here allow

This map shows methane measurements Ira Leifer took as he drove in his RV around the Los Angeles basin. Notice the pronounced spike in levels of methane around the La Brea Tar Pits in the center of the image. Geological faults here allow "natural" methane to escape. The redder the color, the more methane was detected. Courtesy of Ira Leifer and Paige Farrell, et. al.

Ira Leifer, at his garage-turned-lab in Santa Barbara, has been studying the levels of methane in the atmosphere.

Ira Leifer, at his garage-turned-lab in Santa Barbara, has been studying the levels of methane in the atmosphere. Richard Harris

Leifer stands atop his roving chemistry lab. He and his team took 6,600 methane readings on the cross-country drive from Florida to California.

Leifer stands atop his roving chemistry lab. He and his team took 6,600 methane readings on the cross-country drive from Florida to California. Richard Harris

If you're driving down the road someday and you come across a camper with a 50-foot periscope sticking up into the sky, you just might have crossed paths with Ira Leifer. His quirky vehicle is on a serious mission. It's sniffing the air for methane, a gas that contributes to global warming.

Leifer is an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But you'll more often find him off campus, in a garage, next to a string of auto body shops near the airport.

The converted garage is jammed with computer workstations and a bunch of high-tech gear, including a rack full of gas chromatographs — instruments that analyze air samples.

Leifer's machines are tuned to look for hydrocarbons, especially methane. It's the main ingredient of natural gas. Methane is also much more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in the atmosphere. So it's important to know how much is in the atmosphere and where it's coming from.

Back in 2010, Leifer headed to the Gulf of Mexico to measure methane that bubbled into the water during the Deepwater Horizon blowout. He needed to take his gas chromatographs with him to do these studies.

"And the standard way scientists usually deal with this is they pack everything up in a box and they ship it, but that means you have to trust that FedEx or whoever is taking it won't accidentally drop it," Leifer says. "So I thought, 'Why don't I drive it down?' "

He rented a camper for the trip. And after his research cruise ended, Leifer thought, "Why not sample the air on the way back home?" So he jury-rigged a setup for these delicate instruments in the back.

"It involved a lot of work with an air mattress folded in half, a giant tarp filled with Styrofoam peanuts, bungees holding things to the wall and so on," Leifer says. "It really looked like a Rube Goldberg kind of weird device in the back with this gas chromatograph sitting in the middle of it."

Starting in Florida, Leifer and a couple of assistants took 6,600 methane measurements as they drove west. He says the measurements steadily increased as the RV approached Houston, which is home to hundreds of petrochemical plants. Driving around the plants and natural-gas pumping stations, he often found spikes of methane.

"And after we left the Houston area, we then continued westward, and the methane levels decreased and decreased and continued doing so all the way to the Mojave Desert," he says.

The highest readings turned out to be in the Los Angeles area, specifically around the La Brea Tar Pits. These are areas of "natural" methane seepage, Leifer says. "Oil, tar and methane seep up to the surface and fill the pits." The preserved bodies of Ice Age animals have been retrieved from the sticky muck.

Leifer qualifies the word "natural" because some of the leaks probably aren't natural at all. They're instead from old oil wells that were drilled in the early 20th century and tapped into those same natural reservoirs of hydrocarbons. Back then folks weren't so careful with their wells.

"When the company went bankrupt, they wouldn't seal them up very well," Leifer says. "They might just stuff trees and stones and rags in them. Literally."

Methane also contributes to smog, so Los Angeles is very interested in figuring out where its methane comes from.

Air mattresses and bungees actually aren't required for this kind of research. A new type of chromatograph can withstand the bumps and bruises of the road. So, since Leifer's road trip in the rented camper in 2010, there have been lots of similar methane studies.

But he says his was the first cross-country observation. It's being published in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

Leifer was so intrigued by the possibilities here, he bought his own 37-foot diesel RV, and he's souped it up to be a rolling chemistry lab, complete with a hydraulic lift to get all his gear into the back of the vehicle. It also has a mast that rises up five stories, like a periscope.

"Scientists are known to like cool stuff," he says with a laugh. Of course, the mast is only up when the camper is parked.

Over the course of his expedition, Leifer says, he not only learned that he really, really wanted a new RV to study pollution, but also got a firsthand sense of just how much methane gas simply leaks out of refineries, pipes and wells before it can get to would-be customers.

"We're talking several hundred billion dollars of profit that's just being lost," he says. "It's causing a lot of environmental damage. And this is one of those perhaps rare cases in which doing the right thing leads to a win-win situation for the shareholders [and] the economy, as well as the environment."

The challenge now is for those companies to track down all those leaks, among half a million gas wells and hundreds of thousands of miles of pipeline. Sealing those leaks won't always repay those companies in cash, but it will provide rewards to the planet in the form of less rapid global warming.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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