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Science Works: EPA Funds Development of Laser-Based Carbon Dioxide Sensor

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MUSIC: "Science Works” theme music

LACAPRA: Welcome to EPA’s “Science Works,” a podcast about how the EPA uses science to meet its mission to protect your health and environment. From “Science Works” at EPA, I’m Véronique LaCapra.

On April 17, EPA officially declared that greenhouse gases contribute to climate change and are a danger to public health. This week on Science Works, we’ll hear about a new way to measure one of these greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide. The technology is being developed with support from EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, or SBIR.

ROOS: “Our project is to develop a handheld sensor to detect the concentration of carbon dioxide as a function of distance.”

LACAPRA: That’s Peter Roos [ROO-SS rhymes with moose]. He’s the President and CEO of Bridger Photonics, a small high-tech company based in Bozeman, Montana. His company specializes in the development of laser-based technologies.

ROOS: “So, I can shine this laser beam out to a distant plume coming out of a smokestack, and I can tell you the extent – how big the plume is – and I can tell you the concentration of carbon dioxide coming out of the plume.”

LACAPRA: Just how will that work? Well, gases like carbon dioxide absorb specific wavelengths of light. Carbon dioxide absorbs light in the infrared part of the spectrum – which explains why it acts as a “greenhouse gas,” trapping the sun’s energy and heating up the atmosphere.

ROOS: “We tune our – the wavelength of our laser to that particular wavelength that is absorbed by carbon dioxide.”

LACAPRA: By “tuning” his sensor to one of the infrared wavelengths absorbed by carbon dioxide, Roos can use the laser to measure the concentration of carbon dioxide being emitted by a specific source, like a smokestack.

ROOS: “We send out a pulse of light, and some of that light gets absorbed by carbon dioxide. And then, a small amount of that light comes scattering back to us. And so by measuring the amount of light that we get back, we’re able to detect how much got absorbed.”

LACAPRA: The sensor can then calculate the concentration of carbon dioxide that would absorb that amount of light.

Using his laser-based technology, Roos hopes to develop a hand-held sensor that will be able to measure concentrations of carbon dioxide from more than 100 yards away.

ROOS: “Our main benefit is that we can detect the concentration remotely. You don’t have to climb up on a smokestack and hold some sensor over the smokestack to tell how much concentration of carbon dioxide is coming out.”

LACAPRA: Existing carbon dioxide sensors have to come into direct contact with the gas to measure its concentration.

Roos says the EPA could use his sensor to measure emissions from industrial sites, or even someday to monitor for leaks from underground storage areas used for carbon sequestration.

ROOS: “We actually want to work with and stay closely tied with EPA, to figure out exactly what their path will be in regulating carbon dioxide. It’s going to be a difficult thing to do, obviously. But we want to stay right there and try and provide the EPA with the tools they’re going to need to monitor.”

LACAPRA: You can find out more about Bridger Photonics and their products on their website, at bridgerphotonics.com.

And for information on EPA’s SBIR program and other funding opportunities for small businesses, check out our website, at epa.gov/ncer/sbir.

MUSIC: "Science Works” theme music

LACAPRA: Thanks for listening to “Science Works,” a podcast series produced by EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Please check back again soon for our next program, at epa.gov/ncer.

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