Earth Day

Monday, April 22nd is Earth Day, a day that fosters appreciation for the earth’s environment and raises public awareness of the issues that threaten it. The theme for this year’s Earth Day is “Protect our Species,” which is aimed at building a unified movement of consumers, voters, educators and scientists to slow the rate of extinction of our endangered species. In celebration of Earth Day, we explored some of the innovations that are underway at PARC to protect our environment and save our species.

Low-cost Methane Detection System
Methane is the major component of natural gas. More potent than carbon dioxide, methane accounts for approximately 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. PARC partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to develop a low-cost system for detecting methane leaks at natural gas wells.

Conventional methane detection methods, requiring on-site personnel and the use of optical cameras, can be very costly, especially at remote sites. PARC proposed printed sensors as a low-cost alternative that would be distributed around the site to detect, quantify and locate the source of methane leaks. This information would give operators visibility into equipment failures and unsafe conditions and allow for more timely intervention.

PARC’s sensor technology is based on printed arrays of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) that interact with different gases. The presence of methane on the surface of the CNTs alters their electrical resistivity, which can then be measured using reliable, low-power electronic systems. The sensors are highly sensitive and can distinguish methane (at very low levels) from other gases, even in high humidity conditions. Aside from methane, the sensors can be used to detect other potentially harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.

PARC scientists performed initial field testing at a simulated gas well, where they successfully identified the source of methane leaks and quantified the leak rate. PARC also developed signal processing and data management routines to collect data that could be communicated off-site via WiFi, cellular, or other communication technologies.

“We are looking at applying this core technology to other segments of the oil and gas industry such as transmission pipelines, compressor stations and refineries,” says PARC scientist, David Schwartz, who leads the research on printed and distributed sensing. “These highly sensitive, low-cost sensors can also be used for distribution networks, carbon monoxide detection in the home, and other safety applications.”

Combating Infectious Disease in the Bat Population
Did you know that bats play a vital role in maintaining the health of our environment? They consume tons of insects that would otherwise destroy our crops and spread disease, and they pollinate our plants. Over the past decade, North America has seen a fast decline in the bat population due to a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome (WNS). WNS has killed millions of bats since its discovery in 2007 and is projected to cause regional extinction of certain species.

Credit: Jonathan Mays, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

To combat this disease, PARC has partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center to administer vaccinations to the bat population using their novel Filament Extension Atomizer (FEA) spray technology. Prior to PARC’s FEA, there was no effective or scalable drug or vaccine delivery method for bats. Capturing bats within their habitat and injecting them one-by-one is challenging and time-consuming. PARC’s FEA is a unique technology for creating aerosols from sticky, high viscosity fluids that are difficult to spray.  The fluids are formed into filaments that break up into fine droplets that can be customized for specific applications.

PARC plans to explore two bat vaccination routes with FEA: inhalation and topical. PARC will use the unique performance of FEA to make small droplets that can be taken into the pulmonary system of the bats where WNS has its biggest effects. To facilitate topical delivery, FEA will generate droplets using formulations that are sticky to the bats’ fur – such that the bats can self-transmit the vaccine when they self-groom or lick themselves and each other. FEA affords a unique opportunity to spray sticky materials that would otherwise be nearly impossible to spray.

“Oro-nasal and topical delivery are just a few drug delivery applications for FEA that we’ve already identified for humans,” says PARC researcher, Jerome Unidad, who is focused on developing new applications in biotechnology and biomedicine. “I think we are barely scratching the surface on these possible applications. And we are excited at the opportunity to extend this technology to animals and have a positive impact on wildlife and the ecosystem.”

PARC scientists are scheduled to start a field trial of FEA prototype devices later this year (during the fall swarm) to test the effectiveness of the technology on bats using both timed- and motion-based delivery methods. PARC’s work with USGS is being funded by the Bats for the Future Fund from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

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