A Camera That Sees Methane

By Elizabeth Preston | December 4, 2015 3:02 pm

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 10.21.58 AM

Swedish scientists have built a camera that makes methane gas visible. The tool could help researchers study greenhouses gases and answer tricky questions about climate change. It’s also good for visualizing cow farts.

Magnus Gålfalk of Linköping University explains that the camera works using infrared spectroscopy. Called “hyperspectral imaging,” the method simultaneously captures a spectrum of infrared light for every pixel in a photo. Many gases absorb infrared light, Gålfalk says, not just methane (CH4). But the camera is fine-tuned to see the signature of methane gas.

In the picture above, the purple plume is methane the researchers released from their lab to test the camera. They also tried taking pictures of a waste incineration plant, a heap of sewage sludge, and a barn with 18 cows inside (the red area is methane):

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 3.34.15 PM

Getting a better grasp on CH4 matters because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. Molecule for molecule, it warms the earth 86 times more effectively than carbon dioxide does, Gålfalk says. But scientists don’t have a good understanding of how methane moves through the environment.

To measure methane gas on a very small scale, scientists can collect an air sample in one place and test it for methane back in the lab. Satellites in space can also measure methane on a regional or even global scale. But Gålfalk says the camera fills a gap between these two scales. It also lets researchers pinpoint sources of methane gas and see how it’s moving.

In the image below, methane rises off a lake called Lillsjön in Stockholm. That, or some cows have been visiting.

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 10.24.45 AM


methane camera

Images: from Gålfalk et al.

Gålfalk, M., Olofsson, G., Crill, P., & Bastviken, D. (2015). Making methane visible Nature Climate Change DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2877

  • Richard Turner

    That’s wonderful, and thanks for the article. One thing though, and just a trivial point I know, but I think it’s cow burps, not farts, that produce the most methane.

    • Suzi Watkins


  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Use the thing for something beyond click bait. Target Enviro-whiners and their emissions.

    “Already, the ruptured storage facility has released well over the equivalent of 800,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide – about the same amount that would be generated by driving 160,000 cars for a year”

    “Clean-burning natural gas”

  • johndubose

    This is good news for us “deniers”. They are going to see methane all over the place. It will be even more obvious that we can not control it. Maybe we will eventually direct or energy toward something worthwhile.

  • jet fuel
    • Pax Humana

      Methane from ANY source will cause pollution and make people sick @disqus_bz2GDesbaM:disqus .

  • turnkey58910

    How is this different from infrared optical gas imaging? It’s been around for several years; new EPA proposal for methane even recommends using OGI.

    • https://www.facebook.com/pages/My-Original-Music-written-arranged-produced-by-ME/195887277117017 JohnnyMorales

      OGI is based on thermal imagining, using infrared to spot leaks in pipelines Etc. with temperature differences between the escaping gas/methane in gas pipelines and the surrounding air being the key to detecting methane.

      This system is far more clever (and versatile) and doesn’t depend on spotting a difference in temperature.

      It depends in infrared spectroscopy to detect the gas based on how absorption lines for methane in the infrared spectrum.

      While the article makes it sound like its sole purpose is to spot methane gas, it could be used to spot any gas provided its filters are set to see their infrared absorption lines.

      If anything might be confusing it is that it depends on infrared, but doesn’t depend on a heat signature that someone might assume must be the case due to that.

  • nik

    Did You?
    I’m sure you did,
    I have a picture of it to prove you did.
    Well, pardon then.

  • nik

    The Tsetse fly is said to be able to detect methane from cows from several miles away.
    Perhaps they could be co-opted into methane detection for humans.

  • Lenny Barentine

    Tank battery over gassing and drilling out gases more methane than cows.

  • Pax Humana

    Take THAT, envirotards!



Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.


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