After a gas leak was reported in Halfax’s south end in July, Gordon McArthur and Nick Nickerson drove around the area taking readings of natural gas with an ultra-sensitive analyzer to make sure all leaks had been plugged.
Within a few hours, the two execs from Forerunner Research Inc. had crunched the numbers and mapped out all air levels on Google Earth.
“The results looked fine, with no lingering reason for concern,” McArthur said later, pleased to be able to demonstrate his company’s gas detection capabilities.
Forerunner Research of Dartmouth has developed gas-flux measurement systems, which have taken readings of ground gas levels above the Arctic Circle, below the Antarctic Circle and many points in between.
The technology is impressive enough that the company is one of the four finalists in The Challenge, a Canadian tech contest put on by the Globe and Mail and Telus. (To vote for your favourite, click here.)
Forerunner’s technology was developed at a St. Francis Xavier University lab run by David Risk, a professor at the school. It is gaining traction largely because it is so low maintenance. With no moving parts, researchers or resource companies just have to install it and let it produce data.
“The differentiation between us and our competitors is we’ve conceived a way to take flux measurements without moving parts, and (our technology is) much less power intensive,” McArthur, company president, said in an interview.
“Also, we provide continuous measurement.”
Forerunner’s sensors are mainly used now to measure gas — especially carbon dioxide — seeping out of the ground. Since they use so little power, the sensors can operate in remote locations off solar panels, so they can be left for long periods of time without maintenance.
The applications include helping oil and gas companies conduct tests to make sure carbon capture and storage facilities are operating as they should. They also include helping researchers test whether the permafrost is releasing more carbon dioxide as the climate changes.
So far, Forerunner has focused largely on the scientific community and generates annual revenues of about $200,000.
McArthur said real financial opportunity lies in helping oil and gas companies with baseline and leak monitoring or monitoring the thousands of kilometres of petroleum pipelines in North America, which have an average age of about 50 years.
“There are concerns by the public and there are ways that we can look after those concerns,” McArthur said. “If we can facilitate a sound process that allows both the public and the private sector to benefit, we would be happy to help with it.”
He said the company can develop the technology so it applies to various gases and several markets, but it’s difficult for a startup with four full-time employees to attack all opportunities.
It has just rolled out an all-weather CO2 sensor and is working with the California gas-measurement company, Picarro Inc., on a product for measuring isotopic emissions. (McArthur and Nickerson used Picarro equipment in their tests in south-end Halifax.)
McArthur is hoping to raise money for the company to finance the product’s development and to hire a business development professional. Ideally, he said, it would like to raise $1.5 million in the next year.
The Challenge awards $100,000 to the winner, which will be named in September. Public voting, which is open until Aug. 31, accounts for about five per cent of the judge’s scoring.