Make No Small Plans: Kairos Aerospace and Pulling Today's Biggest Levers

By Zachary Bogue and Dr. Chris Boshuizen 08.25.21

“Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years.”

—Inger Anderson, UN Environmental Program Executive Director

Time is short. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest grim assessment spells out the harsh reality that our collective inaction has made many devastating effects of global warming all but inevitable. Humanity can still correct course, but only within a glancingly small window.

There are many compelling technologies in development that will eventually help beat back climate change, but only a handful of tools can meaningfully reduce emissions now and give us time to develop those solutions. We simply need more runway to create and scale nascent sustainable energy, manufacturing and agriculture practices.

Kairos Aerospace is today solving the problem of the immense amounts of methane leaking from the world’s oil and gas infrastructure. Since its founding, Kairos has prevented 14.4 billion cubic feet of methane emissions from being released into the atmosphere, equivalent to removing 1.6 million vehicles from the road or reducing 7.3 million tons of CO2 emissions. And they’re just getting started.

Kairos creates a virtuous cycle where infrastructure operators can demonstrate decreased methane emissions, which in turn enables them and their customers to demonstrate decreased footprints of supply chains and adherence to net-zero by 2050 commitments, making each business more valuable and less subject to regulatory risk, which in turn encourages increased usage of the Kairos platform. That’s why DCVC led Kairos’s $26 million Series C-1 funding round: to scale their business to amplify this massive impact.

Leaky wells

Two decades ago, the shift to natural gas was touted as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions*. Natural gas, which is mostly methane, burns more cleanly than other hydrocarbons, generally emitting around 50 percent less CO2 than coal. But when methane makes its way into the atmosphere it is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping about 80 times more heat than CO2 over a 20-year period.

Leakage from natural gas operations is one of the largest sources of methane pollution, and has increased dramatically over the past 20 years. Recent studies suggest that significant leakage throughout the production and delivery process wipes out most of the benefits of the move from coal to natural gas. In all, natural gas extractors lose at least 2.5% of volume to leaks. Natural gas, which was supposed to slow the pace of climate change, has become one of the largest drivers of global warming.

The silver lining is that methane persists for a relatively short time in the atmosphere, so curtailing methane emissions has an immediate impact. Reducing methane emissions is also relatively easier than many other sources of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, a recent UN study found that 45% of global methane pollution can be reduced within a decade. Ergo, methane is one of the easiest ways to curb global warming.

Enter Kairos

Kairos is the only commercially viable option DCVC has seen that tackles this massive opportunity. The company has pioneered an incredibly accurate aerial methane monitoring service that provides actionable and accurate data on methane leaks in industrial infrastructure. Using cutting-edge methane detection algorithms and proprietary sensor hardware, Kairos’s industry-leading capabilities to conduct basin-wide aerial surveys identify material methane leaks of all sizes, which it pinpoints on a map with its patented fusion of infrared data, GPS and aerial photography. With these insights, Kairos is already helping some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies quickly plug and remediate methane leaks.

Most methane emissions come from infrequent but large leaks across sprawling networks of energy infrastructure, which are incredibly difficult to detect with traditional hardware sensors. Kairos’s aerial monitoring easily matches the scale of the infrastructure. Last year Kairos covered 288,000 miles, surveying 12,000 square miles of oil fields, including 96,000 active wells and 48,000 miles of pipeline.

Trillions of dollars of aging energy infrastructure will be inherently slow to update, even when everyone knows the infrastructure won’t be viable indefinitely. Climate watchers have always understood that there was no single solution to global warming: we can’t build 100% clean infrastructure overnight. Kairos’s unprecedented insight into the thousands of pipelines, refining facilities, and wells helps minimize the impact of that transition by providing a meaningful improvement to the infrastructure that already exists as we build toward a clean energy future.

With this financing, we’re helping Kairos bring its methane detection technology to more customers across the globe and improve its instruments to help reduce methane emissions even further. We’re also increasing the odds that the hope for a better future outlined in the IPCC report becomes our shared reality.

*Burning natural gas, itself a fossil fuel, produces CO2. As such, there are many arguments for and against using natural gas as a “bridge technology” to a clean energy future.