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NIST’s Advanced Emissions-Monitoring Tech

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The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has unveiled an upgraded emissions-monitoring technology designed to track methane emissions, a critical greenhouse gas, and other trace gases precisely. This advancement is particularly significant in the context of the Global Methane Pledge, a commitment signed by over 150 nations at the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference with the goal of collectively reducing methane emissions.

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This advanced technology not only provides critical data for mitigating methane emissions but also opens up possibilities for addressing other environmental challenges. NIST’s cutting-edge system is expected to play a crucial role in global initiatives aimed at monitoring and controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are making collaborative efforts to deploy the technology in various regions worldwide, contributing to a comprehensive understanding of methane sources and helping nations meet their emission reduction targets,” explained Kevin Cossel, a NIST Researcher and Co-author of the study.

The enhanced technology developed by NIST allowed researchers to estimate methane emissions over a vast area of approximately 855 square kilometres in Northern Colorado for two months. The study, focusing on emissions from two primary sources—agriculture and oil and gas production—revealed unexpected findings. Firstly, methane emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) exceeded predictions. Secondly, despite an increase in production, total emissions from oil and gas activities in the study area seemed to have plateaued over the past several years.

Kevin emphasised the importance of data for policymakers. “Collecting this type of data is what is useful for policymakers to see how emissions are changing over time so they can adjust regulations accordingly,” he stated.

Methane, with approximately 30 times greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide over 100 years, poses a significant threat to climate stability. To manage methane emissions effectively, accurate measurement is crucial, presenting numerous technical challenges. Traditional methods rely on estimating emissions based on economic activities, whereas the NIST method involves the direct measurement of atmospheric gas variation.

The NIST setup employs frequency combs, a specialised laser emitting a broad spectrum of colours, to measure gas concentrations in the air. Methane and other gases absorb specific wavelengths of light, which are then analysed to determine gas concentrations and identify emission sources. The latest version of this frequency comb spectrometer exhibits improved robustness, portability, and adaptability to diverse climates, addressing the limitations of earlier versions.

Griffin Mead, a NIST Researcher and Co-author highlighted the system’s resilience in harsh conditions, noting its effectiveness in extreme weather such as winter in Colorado. The improved technology is now more temperature-stable and efficient in data collection, making it suitable for various climates.

In this system, frequency combs built from fibre lasers used in the telecommunications industry are commercially available, paving the way for widespread adoption by companies and laboratories.

Beyond tracking methane, the upgraded system also measures other gases, including ethane and ammonia. Simultaneously analysing correlations between multiple gases allows for a more nuanced understanding of emissions from the oil and gas and agriculture sectors. This comprehensive approach enhances the accuracy of emissions estimates and provides valuable insights into the sources and impacts of various pollutants.

In the future, the researchers plan to expand the scope of their studies. Griffin Mead and Kevin Cossel aim to measure other gases, such as nitrous oxide emissions from wastewater treatment plants. Their goal is to refine the system’s sensitivity and precision further, with upcoming studies planned near Salt Lake City to explore regional variations.

As global efforts intensify to reduce methane emissions, NIST’s upgraded technology emerges as a pivotal tool, offering accurate and actionable information for scientists, industry leaders, and policymakers in the ongoing battle against climate change.


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