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PRESS ROOM

The Adventure of The Gas-Seeing Camera


10/30/05

By FRANK NELSON
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER

There's a new detective in town -- a hand-held gadget made by GIT that goes by the name Sherlock

Fictional detective Sherlock Holmes was the most famous problem-solver of Victorian and Edwardian England, so it seems fitting that a device carrying his name now offers the prospect of solving some of today's most knotty problems.

In a sense the Sherlock, a hand-held gadget made by Gas Imaging Technology of Buellton, is the high-tech heir of the trusty magnifying glass that Holmes used to help crack several of his most vexing cases.

But this Sherlock is looking for something far more elusive than a cotton thread, a speck of dirt or even a fingerprint -- it "sees" gases that are invisible to the human eye. More than that, it can distinguish between different kinds of gases and quantify how much gas is there.

All of which is becoming crucial in a world that now needs to monitor greenhouse gases and guard at every turn against gas leaks -- from refineries, pipelines, chemical plants, oil and gas tankers, power plants, oil platforms -- that may pollute the environment, cost money and endanger lives.

GIT was spun off about a year ago from Buellton-based Pacific Advanced Technology, whose founder and chief executive officer, Michele Hinnrichs, reports that worldwide reaction to the Sherlock has been almost overwhelming.

Although the first Sherlock models are not expected to hit the market before the end of next spring, she says the company has been fielding requests for information and prototype demonstrations from across Europe and as far afield as Greece, Argentina and Singapore.

"It's been phenomenal, especially since we're not doing any marketing," she says. "They're coming to us. People are banging on our door."

Ms. Hinnrichs says gas producers, oil and gas transfer facilities, refineries, chemical plants, service companies, power plants, gas compressor stations, underground pipelines, regulatory agencies, environmental groups, tankers and liquefied natural gas terminals are among the customers making up this $24 billion market.

And looking just over the horizon, in perhaps three to five years, Ms. Hinnrichs sees something very like the Sherlock riding aboard commercial aircraft, where its sensors could warn of attack by surface-to-air missiles or rockets.

What GIT is offering is a new technology, tailored to the critical needs of the oil, gas and chemical industries, that brings together infrared gas imaging and analysis in a portable device similar to a video camera.

The Sherlock is a spectrometer that scans and analyzes light coming through gases; as light passes through gas, it becomes dimmer; the device is able to measure the density of the light and identify an "absorption signature" for various gases.

Not only does the Sherlock distinguish between gases, such as methane, butane and propane, but Ms. Hinnrichs says it's the only such spectrometer able to measure the quantity of gas -- for example, the amount pouring out of a smokestack, being burned off by a refinery flare or leaking from a faulty pipe valve.

"Quantification is critical in measuring the amount of greenhouse gases emitted at refineries, chemical plants, power plants and from stacks in order to comply with existing and anticipated regulatory requirements, as well as in mitigating the risks of catastrophic fires and explosions," she says.

As head of Pacific Advanced Technology, a company she founded on this exact day in 1988, Ms. Hinnrichs knows a lot about infrared technology. For 17 years, PAT has been working with the Department of Defense, and more recently Homeland Security, on using infrared sensors to detect everything from truck bombs to biological and chemical agents.

More than $14 million has been invested in this technology, the money coming from such sources as the Army, Navy, Air Force, Missile Defense Agency, Department of Energy, state of California, Gas Research Institute, BP and Shell Global Solutions.

Ms. Hinnrichs believes applications for the Sherlock are global and extensive. "They include the detection and imaging of gas leaks in refineries, power and chemical plants, on oil and LNG tankers, as well as in many other facilities," she says.

"In addition, the Sherlock can quantify greenhouse gases," says Ms. Hinnrichs, noting that its benefits also extend to industries that require compliance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules on gas detection and monitoring stack emissions.

That sounds at once familiar and potentially very interesting to Bobbie Bratz, public information officer with Santa Barbara County's Air Pollution Control District.

Ms. Bratz says the district has used infrared technology to measure carbon monoxide emissions and levels in the surrounding air, and the broader capabilities of the Sherlock sound intriguing.

"One instrument doing multiple pollutants could be a real benefit," she said.

According to Ms. Hinnrichs, one rapidly growing area for Sherlock is risk mitigation and safety, particularly in light of recent explosions at petrochemical and refining operations. In July, an accident at BP's plant in Texas City killed more than a dozen workers.

"Our technology might have prevented these catastrophes by 'seeing' the major leaks and allowing remedial action to be taken in time to avert the explosion and the consequent economic losses," she said.

Similarly, the Sherlock could play a role in the aftermath of events like Hurricane Katrina, which damaged refineries; the device could help determine potentially unsafe areas by detecting and locating major leaks and allowing the refineries to repair damage more rapidly.

Under the 1990 Clean Air Act, refineries and chemical plants must carry out regular inspections looking for so-called "fugitive" leaks, and they must adhere to risk-mitigation and safety standards.

The inspections, their findings and resulting repairs or any other actions must also be fully documented and are then audited. Ms. Hinnrichs says the Sherlock gas imaging system can play a key role, making inspections easier, more thorough, more accurate -- and cheaper.

Current methods for locating fugitive gas emissions are labor-intensive, time-consuming and can cost a large refinery as much as $1 million per year.

Ms. Hinnrichs says the Sherlock is far more efficient and can detect major leaks 10 times faster, thus avoiding the risk of accident.

A large refinery might require as many as 10 or a dozen Sherlock infrared cameras to cover regulatory and safety inspections. The devices cost around $100,000 each, but in the context of the huge ongoing costs for inspections, the devices can quickly pay for themselves.

Although the Sherlock can be carried around by an inspector, the device can also be set up to monitor remotely, the likely scenario for continuous emission monitoring of stacks and the analysis of flame chemistry to measure the burning efficiency of gas flares.

A Sherlock camera on a pole could continuously scan many chimneys, providing a "signature" of what's coming out, a function now performed by chemical laboratories at the base of every stack. Or it could scan flares, analyzing what's happening from the nozzle to above the top of the flame.

Trials have shown the Sherlock can effectively monitor from as far as 10 miles away; the company has also used the device to check the fuel-burning efficiency of missile launches 50 miles away and the exhaust from aircraft engines up to 100 miles away.

e-mail: fnelson@newspress.com

RAFAEL MALDONADO / NEWS-PRESS PHOTO

Michele Hinnrichs, president of Buellton-based Gas Imaging Technology, says the Sherlock spectrometer can detect and quantify gas leaks and emissions. She says the $100,000 device has wide applications in energy-related industries and in monitoring greenhouse gases.

Gas Imaging Technology engineers Larry McCrigler, left, and Pete Burke test the Sherlock infrared spectrometer at the company's facility in Buellton.

The high-tech multispectral sensing lens is a key component of the Sherlock, a device that can recognize a range of gases and quantify how much of them is escaping into the air.

COURTESY OF GAS IMAGING TECHNOLOGY

Andreas Engberg, an engineer with Gas Imaging Technology, puts the Sherlock through its paces at an unidentified processing plant.

 
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