Spotlight on Joe von Fischer

“Methane is my favorite gas,” says Joe von Fischer, an associate professor in the Department of Biology and an affiliated faculty member of the Colorado State University Energy Institute. “It is a chemical surprise,” he adds going on to explain how the colorless, odorless gas methane (CH4) has captured his personal and academic admiration.

Von Fischer in front of one of the museum-quality displays he helped design in the Biology building.

Methane, as von Fischer describes it, is an anthropomorphized molecule. An opportunist, it inhabits the well-drained arid soils of New Mexico and the atmosphere of Neptune. It is stable and, like a sleeping giant, can exist for millennia buried in underground reservoirs.

“You can hit it with a hammer, and it wouldn’t break,” says von Fischer, who often uses easily understood examples like this to explain his research. He learned this valuable communication skill growing up in Lakeville, Minn. from his father, a Lutheran Minister.

But back to methane. It is strong but also complex. Within its tree-like structure of carbon and hydrogen, the very blocks of life itself, it can hold more heat than the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. This makes methane a potent climate actor. It is this last point that von Fischer rests on.

His recent research focuses on how to detect when natural gas, made primarily of methane, leaks into cities. With current technology, utilities are only able to find about one third of natural gas leaks and they are unable to easily quantify the size of each leak. But using new infrared laser technology known as a methane analyzer von Fischer can detect “with incredible precision” how much methane is in the air and figure out the size of a leak simply by driving by it.

“This was a revolutionary change. Now we didn’t have to take air samples back to the lab, we could take air samples out in the field,” he explained liking the advance to getting glasses for the first time or the invention of the microscope.

Von Fischer’s lab was one of the first to purchase a methane analyzer, and when they did they immediately put it in the back of a lab truck and drove around Fort Collins, Colo. to take it for a test drive. Before long von Fischer had identified a leak by a local company, and then decided to work with them as a “friendly neighborhood scientist” to fix the precise part of their system that was leaking methane.

“It was the first time that I had moved out of the ivory tower of atmospheric methane microbial stuff to really making a difference to what humans are doing to atmospheric methane,” he says. “It was really addictive to me, I felt I had really made a difference.”

Working in collaboration with the Environmental Defense Fund von Fischer used Google Streetview Cars to measure the leakage rate of natural gas from cities around the country. His study in Environmental Science and Technology indicates that this new mobile approach to methane detection can help utilities rapidly prioritize which leaks to fix first, and reduce methane emissions overall. This win-win solution saves money and time, and helps reduce the amount of potent greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere.

Something Von Fischer is excited to see. He is married to fellow biologist Colleen Webb, who runs the graduate biology program and her own lab at CSU. The couple has four children together (Josie, Liam, Peter and Theo) and enjoy spending their summers canoeing in Chamber Lake.

Stepping outside of the lab to make a difference changed von Fischer’s approach and made him realize the value of pursuing real-world applications of his work. Recently he testified in California and helped get the new methane analyzer technology listed as a best practice that utilities can now use to find and quantify leaks.

Given the amount of coffee von Fischer drinks, and the fact that he describes himself as a “highly caffeinated” individual who “really, really likes coffee,” it is safe to say that he will continue to study his favorite gas methane from a multitudes of angles. He is looking forward to starting a new investigation into what factors contribute to the amount of methane leaks in an urban environment from the available technology to the history of a landscape.

Learn more about von Fischer and his work to study and characterize methane at http://www.biology.colostate.edu/people/jcvf/