This Camera Is so Advanced It Can Photograph Methane in the Air

December 2, 2015 | Joanne Kennell

methane molecules in the atmosphere

Say cheese!

A team of researchers from Linköping and Stockholm Universities, funded by Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, and the Swedish Research Council, VR., have created a camera capable of photographing and filming the methane that is in the air around us.  

Methane (CH4) is a potent greenhouse gas that is more efficient at trapping radiation than carbon dioxide (CO2).  Pound per pound, the impact of methane on climate change is more than 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.  It is also the second most prevalent gas emitted in the U.S. from human activities.  So why don’t we hear more about it in the news?

Methane accounts for only 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.  The source of most methane comes from industry (coal mining, and natural gas and petroleum), waste management (landfills), and agriculture (manure management), as well as natural sources such as wetlands, decomposition, volcanoes, and wildfires.  Globally, 60 percent of total methane emissions comes from human activities.

Scientists are not too sure where all the sources and sinks for methane are located in the natural landscape.  Although methane continues to increase rapidly in the atmosphere, what has scientists puzzled is that the increases are irregular, whereas carbon dioxide shows very steady growth.

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"The camera is very sensitive, which means that the methane is both visible and measureable close to ground level, with much higher resolution than previously. Being able to measure on a small scale is crucial," says Magnus Gålfalk, Assistant Professor at Tema Environmental Change, Linköping University who led the study.

It is an advanced hyperspectral infrared camera and was developed by a team of experts in the fields of astronomy, biogeochemistry, engineering, and environmental science.  This is definitely not a camera you can carry around your neck — it weighs 77 pounds (35 kilograms) and measures 20 x 18 x 10 inches (50 x 45 x 25 centimeters).

The camera works by measuring the same wavelengths of radiation that methane absorbs, and within each pixel in the image, the camera records a high resolution spectrum (colors).  This makes it possible to separate methane from other gases in the atmosphere.  It can be used to measure emissions from environments such as lakes, sewage sludge deposits, and combustion processes.

"This gives us new possibilities for mapping and monitoring methane sources and sinks, and it will help us understand how methane emissions are regulated and how we can reduce emissions. So far the camera has been used from the ground and now we're working to make it airborn[sic] for more large-scale methane mapping," says David Bastviken, professor at Tema Environmental Change, Linköping University and the principal investigator on the project.

In this 19-second movie from the hyperspectral infrared camera, you can see methane gas indicated by the color purple:

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