Sandia’s Low-Cost Air Samplers Sniff Out Emissions

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories has developed a new atmospheric sampling device that is said to be smaller, lighter, less expensive and yet more accurate for taking the air samples that are used to calculate computerized climate models.

For Sandia Labs, the new device, called a phase-change microvalve sensor and about the size of an earplug, eliminates some of the problems inherent in using flask containers, which are larger and heavier and have valves that can outgas, distorting measurements. In fact, the tiny, cylindrical-shaped devices are so useful, reliable and easily deployed that they can also be aggregated, 100 or so at a time, to detect or confirm industrial spills or releases in monitoring carbon trading scenarios or voluntary greenhouse gas emissions plans.

image via Sandia National Laboratories

The sensors operate by rapidly collecting air samples through a tiny hole, about 240 microns in diameter (the equivalent of 240, 000 nanometers). Once a device is full, a miniscule heat source on the surface automatically melts an alloy to close the microvalve, without human intervention, and seals in the sample to prevent contamination. More important, the low cost, durability and automatic operation of the devices means they could be widely deployed in large numbers, in weather balloons for example, to return results that allow scientists to more closely model climate. And because of their low cost, even developing countries could afford to use them.

Sandia envisions an array of these devices providing NASA with the “ground-truth measurement” sort of confirmation it needs to calibrate more complicated remote apparatus accurately. And the sensor’s small size would also permit deployment below Earth’s surface, to evaluate gas and oil deposits, for example, or to determine how and where rock strata formed. Not to mention the myriad uses in defense, medicine and industry that require small size in a durable, reliable and inexpensive monitor. Perhaps, in time, those same features (cheap, small and sturdy) will result in home-based monitoring, like Oregon Scientific’s Weather Station Lab.