Summer undergrad research tracks natural gas leaks

PULLMAN, Wash. – While some college students spend their summers tracking down the perfect vacation spot, Alex Lambdin spends his tracking down methane emissions leaking from natural gas pipelines.
Lambdin, a senior in civil engineering, is one of more than 60 students from around the country and Washington State University participating in a research experience for undergraduates (REU) program at WSU supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). In the WSU College of Engineering and Architecture, research areas include atmospheric chemistry, smart homes and mechanical and materials engineering.
NSF funds REU programs all over the country as a way of introducing undergraduates to research and to provide a unique, out-of-classroom experience.
How to control leaks
Lambdin is working with faculty members Brian Lamb and Steve Edburg to compile a new inventory of methane emissions from the natural gas industry across the U.S. Although natural gas is a domestically available fossil fuel that is cleaner than other options when burned, uncombusted natural gas is a strong greenhouse gas.
When released into the atmosphere at different points along the supply chain, it has a higher warming potential than carbon dioxide, Earth’s principal manmade greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are believed to be impacting the planet’s climate.
The research Lambdin is helping with aims to make sense of how much natural gas is leaking and what factors, such as different types of pipes, could keep leaks under control. His specific task within the research is establishing the database for all underground leaks, which mostly includes inputting data and creating plots using Excel computer software.
“I like numbers and math, that’s why I got into engineering. The researchers were apologizing that I had to do the number crunching but I actually really love it,” Lambdin said.
Expanding environmental interest
He had the opportunity to get out of the office in June when he traveled to a field site with Edburg to help collect data from underground leaks. They used a dynamic surface enclosure to control the environment around methane leaks so they could accurately test velocity and emission rates.
In addition to research at WSU, Lambdin attended an undergraduate research leadership conference at the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s undergraduate leadership workshop in Boulder, Colo., in June. He was the only engineering student at the conference. He heard several presentations on atmospheric research and toured NCAR facilities, including laboratories and research aircraft facilities.
“The conference and REU have opened my eyes to environmental engineering and how broad it is,” Lambdin said. “Because of this experience I’ve enrolled in a few different environmental classes next semester to see if it is something I want to continue pursuing.”
He will present his research at the WSU Summer Undergraduate Research Poster Symposium, which will be 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday, Aug. 2, in the CUE atrium.