Editorial Feature

Environmental Sensing - What Impact Can it Have?

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Environmental sensing is becoming an important sector around the world. Sensors are being employed to monitor environmental conditions, highlight trends, help develop reports for policymakers, and help to support policy goals.

Its key aim is to help collect information so that we can better understand how we are impacting the environment, and through understanding this we stand a better chance of improving and keeping our impact to a minimum.

The obvious benefits of environmental monitoring include pollution reduction, occupational disease reduction, and also minimizing the impact of human activities.

There are several current areas of focus for environmental sensors, including the monitoring of air pollution in urban areas, water pollution monitoring, solid and hazardous waste monitoring, and industrial emissions monitoring.

Nitrogen and volatile organic compound emissions are the main contributors to the ground-level ozone, which causes a negative impact on both human health and nature. Sensors are being used in communities worldwide to measure and assess their air pollution problem. The impact of this is that the data they collect helps to guide public policies which aim to make appropriate adjustments to keep us and the ecosystem safe.

Resources that come from freshwater present environmental and economic value to the regions who own these natural sources. Pollutants are a major cause of damage to this valuable resource. Therefore, sensors used to monitor water pollution have a major influence over the availability of these essential resources, as the data they collect can impact on policies and projects to maintain the health of this ecosystem.

Perhaps the biggest advancement that environmental sensing will make in the future is that smart sensors will be implemented in order to monitor the natural gas infrastructure. This will have the impact of recognizing leaks and preventing their damage, detecting pollutants and reducing their levels in the environment, gaining insights on the nature of pollutant spread in order to control it, and improving diagnosis of respiratory disease due to better detection.

It will also have an overall impact of reducing global warming through monitoring and understanding air pollutants. Most notably, environmental sensors will revolutionize the way we manage methane levels in the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide is considered the largest contributor to global warming, and while its impacts are less well known, methane is thought to be the second-largest contributor. Although interest in methane is increasing in the field of clean energy due to its clean burn, when the actual element itself is free in the atmosphere it has a warming effect, just like carbon dioxide.

One of the biggest contributors to the levels of methane in the atmosphere is leakage from natural gas systems. In fact, it’s estimated that a huge nine million metric tons were leaked from these systems into the atmosphere back in 2014.

Environmental sensors are stepping in to provide a solution to the problem, a solution that will have a significant impact in reducing the levels of methane in the atmosphere, and therefore reducing global warming. IBM has teamed up with natural gas producers to use sensors to create an intelligent methane monitoring system. The project is part of the ARPA-E Methane Observation Networks with Innovative Technology to Obtain Reductions (MONITOR) program.

It’s envisioned that the sensors would use silicon photonics, technology with the capability to use light to transfer data. The sensors could be fixed to the ground, within infrastructure, or they could even be air bound through the attachment to drones. The sensors would have the ability to build complex environmental models, allowing scientists to locate the origin of where pollutants are entering the atmosphere as it happens in real-time.

It’s predicted that this major leap in sensor technology will be working in the real world in roughly five years time. The advent of these kinds of sensors will be a breakthrough in managing global warming through environmental sensing.

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