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Laser “Gas Detective” Probes Methane Emissions from Cows

researchers develop laser to measure methane emissions from cowsIt’s common knowledge that one of the single largest sources of greenhouse gas pollution related to human activity is methane emissions from livestock (yes, cow farts).  However, when it gets down to specifics, the figures are somewhat elusive, partly because most estimates have been made based on measurements from individual cows.  Now an international team of scientists has come up with a way to deploy lasers to measure methane emissions from entire herds.

Methane Emissions from Cows

The U.S. EPA goes with the figure of 80 million metric tons of methane annually. That includes the global methane emissions from all ruminant livestock, meaning cows, goats, sheep and any other animal that chews its cud (blech, but whatever). Even just counting large ruminants, the numbers add up; in the U.S. alone there are an estimated 100 million cattle all contributing their two cents to climate change.

A Solution to Livestock Methane Pollution

According to EPA, grazing and dietary engineering can help reduce methane emissions, and so researchers have been tinkering with methane-reducing feed variations such as algae, fish oil, and even curry. Having an efficient, cost-effective means of measuring progress (or lack thereof) is the key to success, and that’s where the laser equipment comes in. It enables scientists to take discrete measurements under real-life conditions in normal livestock operations, which presumably mitigates stress and other variables that might be present when individual animals are sequestered for measurement.

Lasers for Measuring Methane

The scientists, from Canada and Australia, have tested their technique on a small herd of 18 cattle. The members of the herd were provided with global positioning devices to monitor their movements along with wind speed and directions, and “open-path” lasers were used to measure methane concentrations directly above the herd every ten minutes. Open-path technology is commonly used in gas detection, specifically by the petroleum and chemical industries to to detect gas leaks, so the application to cows makes perfect sense.

Image: Cow by seanmcgrath on

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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