10 July 2024

Polish scientists from Warsaw’s Military University of Technology have developed a laser methane sensor that will not only be able to monitor environmental pollution, but also search for alien life forms.

The device is based on the absorption of optical long-wave infrared radiation and could be helpful in detecting environmental pollution and finding leaks in pipelines. It could even be used to find life on Mars.

Photo from the Military University of Technology press release

‘Longer waves penetrate more effectively through obscuring layers, such as aerosols and dust, which may be an important advantage when researching the atmosphere of various planets, for example Mars’, says Col. Dr. Jacek Wojtas from the university’s Institute of Optoelectronics.

Dr Wojtas explained that methane is associated with the breakdown of organic matter and its presence in the atmosphere is seen by scientists as one of the primary signs of life. However, detecting the gas is no easy task as it usually occurs only in trace quantities and therefore sensors have to be very precise.

Optical methods serve the purpose very well as they use the phenomenon of laser radiation absorption to measure minute concentrations of the gas. They also allow very rapid measurements and are highly selective. In addition, the latest technologies mean optical sensors can be compact and energy-efficient.

‘Methane is a very important substance because it is a component of natural gas, used as a fuel source for electricity generation and heating, and the second most common greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, responsible for over one third of today’s anthropogenic climate warming’, says Dr. Wojtas.

As such, the reliability of the sensor could see it play a vital role in the accurate calculation of pollutant levels, while its versatility could further see it harnessed to measure fuel purity or locate pipeline leaks.

Moreover, with methane also exhaled by humans, the sensor will also be able diagnose some illnesses and diseases through the analysis of a person’s breath.