Methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more strong than carbon dioxide, is the second-leading cause of global warming. Methane is produced when organic waste decomposes underground, and landfills are a major source of this gas.
Presently, a company founded at MIT hopes to drastically cut methane emissions from landfills with a system that doesn’t require any additional land, roads, or power lines to operate. Loci Controls has created a solar-powered device that optimizes the collecting of methane from landfills in order to convert more of it into natural gas.
According to Loci Controls CEO Peter Quigley ’85 says, the company was founded by Melinda Hale Sims SM ’09, Ph.D. ’12 and Andrew Campanella ’05, SM ’13.
“We expect to reduce methane emissions more than any other company in the world over the next five years.” Peter stated.
The high concentration of landfill methane emissions is the source of Quigley’s optimism. In the United States, about 1,000 large dumps account for the majority of landfill emissions. Increasing methane collection at certain locations might significantly reduce the country’s overall emissions.
Loci claim that its system raised methane sales at a rate of 180,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year in one landfill where it was implemented. That’s the equivalent of taking 40,000 automobiles off the road for a year.
Loci’s system is currently placed in 15 landfills on wells. According to Quigley, only around 70 of the 1,000 large landfills in the United States sell gas profitably. The gas is burned by the majority of the others. On the other hand, Loci’s staff feels that increased public and regulatory pressure will help the company grow its potential client base.
The idea for Loci came from a revelation by Sims’ father, serial entrepreneur Michael Hale SM ’85, Ph.D. ’89. When the elder Hale was engaged in wastewater management, he was called by a landfill in New York looking for assistance in utilizing its extra methane gas.
“He realized if he could help that particular landfill with the problem, it would apply to almost any landfill,” Sims says.
Then, Sims was pursuing her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at MIT, with a minor in entrepreneurship.
Sims began researching technology solutions to improve methane capture at landfills in her business classes because her father didn’t have time to work on the project. Her advisor, David Hardt, the Ralph E. and Eloise F. Cross Professor of Manufacturing at MIT, understood that the work being unconnected to her Ph.D.
Sims teamed up with Andrew Campanella, an electrical engineering master’s student at the time, and the two participated in the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship’s delta-v summer accelerator program.
When Quigley began teaching Loci’s founders, he retired but still worked on various visiting committees at MIT. He’d spent his career selling reinforced plastic through two companies, one in high-performance sportswear and the other in oil field services.
“What captured my imagination was the emissions-reduction opportunity,” Quigley says.
When organic garbage decomposes in landfills, methane is produced. Hundreds of collecting wells are drilled by certain landfill operators to catch methane. To maximize the amount of methane collected, the suction pressure in such wells must be changed, but according to Quigley, specialists can only do so manually once a month.
To optimize vacuum power every hour, Loci’s devices monitor gas composition, temperature, and ambient conditions, including barometric pressure. The data collected by the controllers is compiled in an analytics platform that technicians can access remotely. That information can also be utilized to locate well failure events, such as flooding after heavy rains, and optimize operations to capture more methane.
“We can adjust the valves automatically, but we also have data that allows on-site operators to identify and remedy problems much more quickly,” Quigley explains.
Improvements in detection technologies are showing inconsistencies between methane emission estimates and reality in the sector, making methane capture at landfills increasingly critical.
For example, NASA’s new airborne methane sensor discovered that California landfills have been leaking methane at rates up to six times higher than the US Environmental Protection Agency’s predictions. The divergence has far-reaching consequences for the Earth’s atmosphere.
A reckoning will have to occur to encourage additional waste management firms to begin collecting methane and optimize methane capture. This could take the form of new collection criteria or increased investor focus on methane collection.
For the time being, Loci’s staff, led by co-founder and current senior advisor Sims, feels it is on track to significantly affect the current market.
Explaining how their system impact will reduce methane emissions at landfills, Sims says:
“When I was in grad school, the majority of the focus on emissions was on CO2,”
“I think methane is a really high-impact place to be focused, and I think it’s been underestimated how valuable it could be to apply technology to the industry.”