FLIR Technology: ‘New’ Technology Shines a Camera on Greenhouse Gas Emissions
By Jan Lee
Seeing is often believing when it comes to addressing the impacts of climate change. As the effects of global warming become more noticeable, scientists tell us, public opinion has been shifting toward the importance of addressing climate change. While graphs and statistics make for good discussions, it’s often the “eyeball impact” that drives home the point that the earth’s atmosphere is being altered by the amount of carbon emissions we release.
“The vision of a huge chunk of ice falling off of a massive glacier has more emotional resonance than a spreadsheet full of yearly average of Arctic sea ice extent numbers does, even if the two are saying the same thing,” explains John Cabrer, senior systems design engineer for MoviTherm, a Southern California company that specializes in advanced thermography solutions for businesses. In recent years researchers have found that using that technology in new ways can also help us “see” the hidden environmental impacts of today’s industries.
To advance that effort, Cool Effect, a crowdfunding platform designed to reduce carbon pollution, recently utilized advanced technology to bring a global issue into new perspective with its newest campaign: “Carbon Can’t Hide”. The goal is to help people understand the volume of CO2 discharges we are actually releasing into the atmosphere on a daily basis, and its relationship to the environmental problems the world is experiencing.
Their tool is a uniquely-named device that has been around for years and now plays a key role in a variety of business inspection services. The Forward-Looking Infrared camera, or FLIR for short, was first used by the U.S. military to follow infrared heat signatures. Today it fills a niche in a wide variety of industrial specialties ranging from breast cancer detection to pharmaceutical production and monitoring systems for bird flu.
But in recent years scientists have realized it has another compelling use. Fitted with a special filter, it can help us see carbon emissions. Even those we haven’t got a clue are there.
“What the camera ‘sees’ when it shows a CO2 emission, is actually a drop in temperature of whatever is in the background where the gas is present,” said Cabrer. Most of the time we can’t see the discharge that occurs from a jet plane’s engine as it’s taking off or landing. But the FLIR camera’s technology can isolate those emissions and make them visible.
“On a very simple level, we’ve used what’s called a band pass filter to highlight the presence of the CO2 within these existing heat signatures,” said Cabrer, who pointed out that the CO2 is actually mingling with the heat source, and that allows us to see the CO2. “As a result, images will appear [on film as] brighter and darker in otherwise homogeneous areas when CO2 is present in various concentrations.”
Cabrer notes that FLIR technology gives us “an excellent visual representation of an otherwise invisible substance,” but it doesn’t necessarily help us measure the result. “It is by no means a way of providing scientific measurements of CO2 concentrations present in a certain space.”
For that, scientists have developed other technology. Studies by organizations like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the think tank CarbonTracker help researchers project the financial and environmental impacts of carbon emissions.
Fossil fuel emissions contribute more than 70 percent of U.S. greenhouse gasses through electricity generation, transportation use and industrial operations, reports the EPA. Just as important is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Climate Change’s finding that those CO2 emission levels are at an all-time high.
Still FLIR technology can play a critical role in limiting global warming by both encouraging them to limit their own carbon emissions and help organizations working to help low-income, underserved communities do the same.
“Enabling people to visualize just what a ubiquitous part of their daily lives carbon emissions are will hopefully inspire those same people to take action in their daily lives and fight to reduce those emissions,” Cabrer said.