High-Performance and Miniature Greenhouse Gas Sensor for Drone-based Remote Sensing

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OPEN 2021
Boston, Massachusetts
Project Term:
06/15/2022 - 06/14/2025

Critical Need:

Nitrous oxide (N2O) molecules are ~300x more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Excessive N2O emissions in farmlands can be caused by over-fertilization or irrigation and are difficult to measure due to the geospatial and temporal variability in emissions events. Currently, monitoring methodologies for N2O emissions from agricultural lands are characterized by low sample rates and resolution, and high costs and complexity due to intrinsic technical challenges associated with gas sensing systems. State-of-the-art N2O sensors that meet the performance requirement for stationary Eddy Covariance systems—which measure exchanges of gas, energy, and momentum between ecosystems and the atmosphere---are too heavy and power-hungry for drone operation and are limited in geospatial resolution, which makes pinpointing of hot spots and hot moments difficult.

Project Innovation + Advantages:

Northeastern University will develop a miniaturized laser-based gas spectrometer to address the three critical technical challenges (size, weight, and power) associated with the state-of-the-art drone-based N2O monitoring without compromising sensing performance. The team will leverage commercial and industrial drones to demonstrate high temporal and spatial resolution remote N2O monitoring suitable for large agricultural lands. The sensor will have an accuracy rate of ~1 ppb with a sampling rate >20 Hz, operate under low power (1 W), and fit in the palm of one’s hand, weighing <400 g. The proposed system will improve drone flight time by 50%.

Potential Impact:

Efficiently monitoring N2O emissions from agricultural lands will provide actionable insights to the agricultural and energy sectors.


The proposed N2O sensor is expected to have unprecedented performance in terms of accuracy (~1 ppb) and selectivity (immune to CO2 interference).


The proposed technology’s drastically reduced size, weight, and power will facilitate drone-based field examination for greenhouse gas emissions.


The proposed miniaturized and low-cost spectroscopic gas sensors will overcome technical and market barriers posed by existing bulky, expensive, and power inefficient infrared multispectral sensing technologies, capitalizing on a $2B market.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Olga Spahn
Project Contact:
Prof. Matteo Rinaldi
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