Sniffing Out Climate Change

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New Lab Detects Subtle Differences in Methane to Pinpoint Sources of Pollution
By Chris Carroll | Illustration by Valerie Morgan

Carbon dioxide and methane both latch onto solar energy and heat the Earth, but CO2 is 200 times as prevalent in the air. If that makes methane sound like a gassy afterthought, consider that the substance rising from swamps, sewers, cow burps and leaky gas pipes has exponentially more global warming power than equivalent volumes of CO2, and its concentration is skyrocketing. A recent study found that quickly cutting methane emissions could slow climate change by 30%.

One big hurdle is figuring out where it’s coming from, and that’s where an advanced new University of Maryland lab comes into play. The Panorama Lab in the Atlantic Building, funded in part by a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant, allows UMD researchers to get a more precise look than ever before at different types, or isotopes, of methane.

“If we’re going to effectively take action on climate change, we need to understand both the sources and the sinks—natural processes that remove methane—in the atmosphere, regionally and even down to the university level,” says geology Professor James Farquhar, one of the project leaders.

Traditional mass spectrometers also categorize isotopes by molecular weight. But unlike the PanoLab—souped up with an electromagnetic component that helps segregate atoms of different masses more effectively, not to mention its giant 3.2-ton magnet—typical devices can’t sort out the minute variations that tell a scientist if a molecule of methane started out in a wetland or seeped from a landfill.

The device, which became operational in April, should soon be able to analyze sulfur and oxygen as well. That will help the project also led by geology Professor Jay Kaufman and atmospheric and oceanic science Professor Russ Dickerson—along with collaborators from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the College of Agricultural and Natural Resources and others—to delve more deeply than ever into what the stew of chemicals in the atmosphere means for us and the planet.


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