Process and Control Today | Mitigating workplace emissions through gas detection

ESG. Three small letters that add up to significant operational changes for any business.

In industries that operate in hazardous environments, such as oil and gas mining and refineries, those letters stand for much more than Environmental, Social, and Governance policies. They represent a framework around which an entirely new operational structure must be built, changing every level of a business from the top down.

A key pillar of this framework relies on mitigating the hazards posed in the workplace and the broader environment too. Interest in the quality of our air has intensified from both the public and lawmakers as the climate crisis continues to dominate the global agenda. And investor relationships are increasingly built on alignment with global Net Zero goals and ethical standards.

It is impossible to plot a route to success in this environment without a solid foundation of accurate, detailed data. And it is impossible to acquire this data without the intelligent sensors required to collect it. By using sensors to inform hazard mitigation and other ESG policies, businesses can maximise safety, minimise disruption and downtime, and protect people and business assets.

Sustainability is at the top of the agenda

It is unsurprising that environmental risk is the key issue of our time. Headlines around plastic waste, deforestation, and polluted seas and air are nearly ever-present, and there is an almost uniquely strong consensus around the issue. Broadly, consumers, businesses, and lawmakers all agree that more must be done around this issue.

And, while global events like the annual COP conferences continue to bring lawmakers together to collaborate on climate change policy, the direction of travel is only moving in one direction – however slow it might be. If corporate image protection and consumer pressure were not receiving enough focus, then stricter environmental regulations such as mandatory government climate risk disclosures certainly should.

The climate risk disclosure rule, proposed by the globally influential US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), would require public companies to provide more detailed reporting of emissions produced and any other environmental risks, as well as net zero plans. This has huge implications for everyone working at publicly-traded companies, from the executive level down – not least because the UK, EU, Japan, and other key markets are following suit, with an end goal of a standardised reporting system.

If any business is not at least making tentative plans for these sweeping changes – and proactively getting ahead of other changes yet to be proposed – they risk being caught off balance as the legislative landscape shifts beneath their feet.

Transparency matters

Whatever form these legislative changes take, and no matter how broad or specific they might be, they will all share a common theme: improved transparency. In many industries, this manifests as an increased focus on health, safety, environmental, and social policies, collecting data to inform new and improved ways of working. This should not be seen as a box-ticking exercise or another length of red tape to bind productivity; rather, it should be seen as a way to streamline and heighten productivity, resulting in less waste and higher quality products.

The sensing technology required to achieve this is no longer a pipe dream, nor is it only available for the most highly sensitive applications. It is more affordable and accessible than ever, allowing any company to monitor their industrial gas usage, emissions, or even just the general air quality around its workplace.

Laser absorption spectroscopy is a powerful tool for detecting trace gases. It is widely used in the monitoring of atmospheric greenhouse gases, pollution, and respiration processes, including human breath analysis. The detection is based on light; specifically, how it is absorbed as it passes through a medium. And, as interest in air quality has dramatically increased from a variety of stakeholders in recent years, sensor manufacturers are seeking out high-performance filters at competitive prices.

From well heads and production sites to offshore platforms and refineries, filters can be the difference between life and death in extreme cases. However, more positively, they can also be used to drive operational excellence to new heights by making granular details about air quality and gas emissions more transparent.

The right wavelength

The primary focus across the world is on reducing two damaging greenhouse gases (GHGs). Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) – CO2 because it is by far the most prevalent GHG, and CHbecause of the initial severity of its impact after it is first emitted into the atmosphere. GHGs are generated at almost every step in the production, delivery, processing, or refining, and especially the consumption of fossil fuels. Almost every industry has a part to play in cutting emissions – and the only way to do this is to identify where they can be cut. This means infrared (IR) sensors, as small as they are, have a vital role to play in our planet’s future.

Emitters within the sensor generate beams of IR light. This light passes through a sampling chamber containing a filter. The filter’s role is to block out light of a certain wavelength, meaning only the required wavelengths make it past the filter, where the light reaches a detector. This detector measures the intensity (or attenuation) of the IR light, which can determine the precise concentration of gas that may be present. Different filters allow different wavelengths of light to reach the detector, which can, in turn, be used to detect different gases.

Newer gas analyser instruments use a laser diode mounted on a thermo-electric cooler to tune a laser’s wavelength to the specific absorption wavelength of a particular molecule. They exploit their high-frequency resolution, which results in enhanced sensitivity – more significant levels of interaction between gas molecules and light in the order of parts per billion – and discriminate, as they are tuned to specific gas compounds. This eliminates the potential for false alarms, which is a real issue with other commonly used gas detection technologies.

The benefits of these sensors include fast response times and accurate results, while not requiring additional gases to operate. This technology has advanced to the point of detectors that continuously monitor combustible gases and vapours within the lower explosive limit and provide alarm indications. These can be deployed within oxygen-deficient or enriched areas, require little calibration, and are immune to sensor poison, contamination, or corrosion.

Identifying the threat

As part of a global effort to bring the world’s industries to carbon neutrality in line with net zero goals, Umicore IR filters are increasingly deployed, using fixed, portable and personal gas detection solutions, to help oil and gas customers monitor and reduce fugitive methane emissions. They move seamlessly from our state-of-the-art production facility in the UK and into a range of turnkey detection technologies that are helping customers meet their ESG targets.

Early detection enables operators to address leaks and other identified risks, minimise other production losses, and maintain compliance with ever-evolving legislation. Non-dispersive infrared sensors that detect noxious, harmful, or corrosive gases in the atmosphere in the parts per billion, remain a critical component when it comes to ensuring the health and wellbeing of industrial workers, as well as being integral to a robust preventive maintenance system to ensure a site runs at optimal performance whilst complying with all Health & Safety policies.

Each particle matters – a small step in a global fight against climate change. It’s a fight that we cannot win until we know our enemy – and IR spectroscopy is the tool that will identify that enemy.

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