QLM technology are developing quantum optical sensors for monitoring industrial gas leaks, which could help to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. CTO and co-founder Dr Xiao Ai sat down with Adam from Unit DX to discuss their prototype methane detector, its advantages over current competitors and his background researching methane detection in space.
What is your core technology?
The technology is essentially a quantum-inspired gas leak detection system. Our core IP is the knowhow and firmware for operating a detector that is typically used for quantum communication. We adapted it for use in gas sensing, to enhance the sensitivity of the detector. When you have a highly sensitive detector, you reduce the size, weight and power requirements of the laser, so the whole system improves and becomes more robust. That extended operating distance increases its potential uses as a drone-deployed sensor.
How does that improve on what’s available from the current competition?
The current competition provide short-range handheld sensors, which provide a similar level of quantitative measurement to our system. The difference is that the distance is limited, making it hard to deploy them safely. They are also single-point systems, which only give you one line-of-sight measurement. With our system, due to the fast measurement speed enabled by the single photon detector, we have managed to generate a gas concentration image through fast scanning.
The other competition in the market is optical gas imaging cameras, which cost close to $100k. They are being deployed in industry, but the cameras do not provide a quantitative result. It shows a plume image that tells you whether there is a leak event or not but cannot provide a quantitative result such a leak rate per hour.
What niche are you focusing on first? Is it just for oil and gas?
At the moment it’s just for oil and gas or petrochemical monitoring applications. We are currently focussing on drone deployment as it’s the ideal platform. Having a bird’s-eye view allows us to generate the gas-concentration image in 2D, we can supply full coverage images of large sections of pipeline.
What other uses do you think you will find for it?
We are working with interesting customers on all sorts of deployment, as the sensor is agnostic to the platform. It could be used on a car, on a stationary platform or even a robot. So we are speaking to potential users of this technology and expanding from our current platform to look at issues that they are having at the moment.
Did you come up with the technology first or did you see the problem first?
I came up with this technology during my post-doctoral research on remote sensing of carbon dioxide in space. When I was completing the research I never imagined there would be a commercial application. Mostly the projects (either NASA or ESA projects) were trying to understand the effects of climate change on a macro scale. When we look at using the technology for leak detection for the O&G industry, it does come with associated environmental benefits. In a sense, we have continued on a similar route, to help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and understand them better, but I never foresaw the commercial route for this tech that we have developed.
What gave you the idea to use it for methane leaks?
We knew the tech we developed can address methane, and there is a European satellite called MERLIN that is monitoring methane from space. Carbon dioxide has very similar spectral properties to methane and similar principles can be used to detect both gases. While I was doing literature research toward the end of the space project, I saw that there was a German company developing helicopter-based LIDAR systems for gas-leak detection, surveying pipelines. That led me to think about drone deployment, because the benefits of our technology are size, weight and power, which the existing, helicopter-based system cannot provide.
How did you get from there to your current position?
We have been very lucky as a start-up. I joined the QTEC programme, a year-long entrepreneurship training programme that taught me how to set up a business and write a business proposal. They helped me to analyse the market so that the tech becomes investable and this showed a clear route for commercialisation. After that we managed to secure some innovate UK funding and have brought in a lot of expertise including our CEO and Chairman, Murray Reed and Yuri Andersson who have a combined 50 years experience in this area. Then we raised some private investment. Since then, we have been working with several partners and are putting together a team of people to develop a prototype.
You have been doing some trials recently with the prototype, how did they go?
Our second innovate UK grant supported us to conduct trials with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). We have successfully trialled the sensor and proven to be able to provide one of the first quantitative gas leak images at 50m distance. From that result, we are interacting with potential customers to find out how each segment of the market might use our sensor, so we can co-develop it further feedback from the potential customer. At the moment we are finding that Oil and Gas companies have differing ideas about how to tackle the problem and that most of them are actively seeking solutions. In general, the industry is trying to get towards zero emissions, which is both to save costs, and improve the bottom line as well as helping the environment and meet regulatory targets by reducing the unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions.
Where are you planning to go next with the technology?
The aim for every instrumentation company is to make a commercial instrument, so we are looking not only to develop technology, but also build products. So we have another 6-12 months planned for projects with potential customers to find the first, mass-manufacturable opportunity, then we will work with customers to have variations on that to better fit customer needs. We will take much less time to market by working with manufacturing partners within our supply chain. Then we will build thousands of such sensors and then we can start to make an impact on mitigating the leaks through wide deployment.
What market would you look to after methane?
Leak detection in general is a very big market, and we have several ideas for interesting applications. We can expand the technology based on the core we build. At the moment we aren’t entirely sure where that tech will lead us, but now we have a result, we can talk to more potential customers and we will expand to different applications, mainly within industrial applications.
QLM are looking for partners who are interested in methane monitoring. To find out more, please visit their website.