Researchers map CO2 distribution over cities

June 5, 2012 7:45:20 PM PDT
Many of us rely on weather maps to plan our day, but what if that map could also help us track the health of our planet? A team at UC Berkeley is hoping to do just that.

"I'm swapping out this old generation board with a new one," said Jill Teigue, a UC Berkeley researcher.

From the roof of the Chabot Observatory, Berkeley researchers Ron Cohen, Ph.D., and Teigue are getting ready to see what's in the sky. But unlike the astronomers there, they're not looking for stars, they're looking for carbon dioxide.

"Instead of measuring CO2 elegantly in one spot, we're interested in measuring the distribution of CO2 over entire cities," said Cohen.

And they're starting with Oakland. Cohen and his team are installing dozens of sensors that detect CO2 -- the key ingredient in smog. The goal is a network that will ultimately give both researchers and residents a real-time look at the air they breathe.

"And we'll make a map each moment in time and put that together over the day, so that we could have a movie of the CO2 in our neighborhood and CO2 over the whole Bay Area," said Cohen.

Think of it as a kind of weather map for greenhouse gases. He says this version compiled from satellite images demonstrates what can be learned on a global scale. The red represents carbon dioxide concentrations six years ago, then watch the levels drop after pollution standards were toughened for automobiles in 2005.

"Now there's really only three cities left that have these super high values," said Cohen.

But to be able to take measurements on a micro-scale, Cohen's team began building their own inexpensive sensors, small enough to be installed on rooftops, but sensitive enough to track the CO2 being released by cars, factories and even home heating.

"Building the first one was hard because we had to chose all of the components, test all the components, wire software for them," said Teigue.

The goal is to gather information so detailed, it will help us understand how our own behavior contributes to green house gasses.

"We'd like to know in detail how CO2 gets into the atmosphere. We'd like to know if we make some change, if for example, all of us buy a Chevy Volt or a Nissan Leaf in the next two years, will we suddenly see a big drop in the CO2 from the city?" said Cohen.

He believes the micro-monitoring approach will help local governments make smarter decisions on issues ranging from traffic policies to regulating fireplaces, and perhaps, ultimately, helping the Bay Area reduce its carbon footprint.

The Berkeley team has contacted dozens of schools in the area about using their rooftops and they hope to have 40 sensors up and running in the next few months.


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