How a tree

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A chance encounter during a walk a few years ago inspired tree scientist Nathan Phillips to help come up with a better way to detect gas leaks in aging underground pipes. The connection between trees and pipes isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.

Phillips, a Boston University professor, came upon a gas line surveyor in his Newton neighborhood and realized the technology he uses to track the effects of greenhouse gases on urban environments and trees could also find potentially hazardous leaks beneath city streets.

“I kind of played the role of matchmaker a little bit,” Phillips said, recalling how he got in touch with Picarro Inc., the California maker of his scientific equipment, and said, “Hey, this is the perfect situation for your instrumentation.”

Picarro’s design team went to work. It designed a suitcase-sized analyzer that Phillips and Bob Ackley, a gas leak specialist with the Southborough firm Gas Safety USA, used as they drove Boston’s streets searching for leaks

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