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UW student team wins $100,000 for carbon monitoring

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University of Wyoming

The Wyoming Union, pictured at right, welcomes visitors to the University of Wyoming on Feb. 14, 2015, in Laramie.

A team of University of Wyoming students won $100,000 for a carbon soil monitoring project this month through the Carbon Removal Student Competition. The $5 million competition is part of a $100 million initiative by XPRIZE and the Musk Foundation intended to advance carbon removal technology.

Chosen from a pool of 70 competitors, the UW team — students Shane Heavin of Rock Springs, Danielle Jones of Gillette, Anna Savage of Greybull and Lander Stone of Laramie — is one of five winners in the “Measurement, Reporting and Verification Technologies” category.

The team will spend the next year devising and implementing improvements to an existing soil gas monitor sensor developed by industry partner Earth Platform Systems. Over the first six months, they’ll develop four prototypes; they’ll then test those four sensors for another six months before selecting a final design.

A few weeks after securing funding, the group is still brainstorming improvements. Among the possibilities are reducing the sensors’ size to bring down the cost, adding methane detection for use at reclamation wells and waterproofing the sensors to expand their applications even further.

Earth Platform Systems’ first-generation storage technology has already been deployed at the site of Wyoming CarbonSAFE, UW’s flagship carbon storage initiative.

“Our project will be focusing on detection of carbon emissions from the earth, and just ensuring that these carbon sequestration sites are functioning as planned,” Stone, an environmental systems science major, said.

From the surface, the 5-foot-tall sensor looks like a solar panel on a metal post. But that post extends three feet underground, where it measures CO2 concentrations every hour on the hour.

Because CO2 is always passing through the soil, researchers are collecting baseline data long before any CO2 is injected into the storage site.

“If there were a big leak, we can’t just put a stake in the ground after the leak and say, ‘Oh, this is what CO2 is doing,’” said Ben Flickinger, owner of Earth Platform Systems. “We wouldn’t be able to detect any change right now. So having a baseline of what’s normal is really important if we’re trying to make a drastic change like storing carbon underground.”

It’s a big step up from earlier soil gas monitoring methods: Before sensors came along, Charles Nye, a research scientist at the School of Energy Resources’ Center for Economic Geology Research and the team’s academic advisor, had to dig a hole in the ground to get the same data. Compared with the sensors, that manual monitoring was done far less frequently, meaning it likely would’ve taken much longer to identify a leak.

“If the natural soil gas keeps doing what it’s doing, and we know there’s no change, that gives us good confidence that there’s no leak,” Nye said. “We’re doing everything we can to avoid leaks. They’re very unlikely. But even if it’s unlikely, we still have to do due diligence and make sure we look for them nonetheless. So these guys are helping us look.”

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