Picarro’s Gas Analyzer to Help Monitor GHG Emissions

If diplomats headed to Copenhagen this December are able to negotiate a new global climate treaty, how will the world know these countries are reducing their greenhouse gas emissions as much as they claim? Michael Woelk, the chief executive of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Picarro, believes he has an answer: build a network of monitoring sites equipped with his company’s sensors that can detect carbon dioxide and other GHGs down to single-digit parts per billion. Woelk’s grand vision got one, albeit small, step closer to reality today with the announcement that the World Meteorological Organization will be using Picarro’s sensors to verify measurements taken from hundreds of GHG-monitoring stations around the world. Picarro will lend one of its $50,000 gas analyzers to a Swiss-based research lab that conducts audits for the WMO. Woelk, in a statement, described the selection of Picarro’s technology as a “technical validation.” Woelk told us that the deal will bring “terrific exposure” to his company’s analyzers, but the chief executive has bigger aspirations than the WMO’s program. He says the current methods used by governments (and companies) to calculate GHG emissions are often based on the amount of fuel consumed and can thus be inaccurate. Governments and companies could also be tempted to provide fraudulent data about their reductions, especially as carbon credit trading becomes a bigger and more lucrative business. Woelk think his sensors can help bring more transparency to carbon emissions calculations. So Woelk has been shuttling to Washington, D.C., to argue his case to legislators (he’s talked to staffers of Sens. Boxer, Kerry and others) that if the U.S. is going to regulate carbon either through the Environmental Protection Agency, a cap and trade system, or some other means, then the country needs to have an accurate way of measuring changes in emissions. His idea: a nationwide network of 500 sites outfitted with Picarro sensors with a price tag of$300 million that could accurately measure in real time tiny changes in GHG emissions for the entire country.

So far scientists have been the main supporters of Picarro’s gas analyzers. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Penn State University and other research outfits have been using Picarro’s technology in their labs and out in the field. The device, a 58-pound box of sensors that’s about the size of a desktop PC, fires laser beams into the air to determine concentrations of carbon dioxide and other gases by measuring the changes in wavelength signals.

While technology has existed in labs for decades to make these measurements, Woelk says Picarro’s achievement is that they’ve stuffed all this measuring capability into a highly portable device that requires very little maintenance. “You don’t need PhD’s to run these instruments,” Woelk said.

While other systems have to be re-calibrated by technical experts as often as once a day, clients have reported to Woelk that they’re able to let Picarro’s gas analyzer go untouched for up to six months. That translates into big savings for users over competing technology, Woelk said. Other companies developing gas-analyzing technology include LI-COR Biosciences, Agilent Technologies, and Thermo Scientific.

But Picarro’s largest long-term opportunity could come from companies operating refineries or managing landfills that are required under cap and trade or some other rule to monitor and reduce their emissions. Picarro’s technology could measure emissions in the downwind plume. “If you start to apply a value to those assets, in this case emissions, than fundamentally you will want an accurate measurement of those assets,” Woelk said.  So far, however, Picarro, which was founded in 1998 and is profitable, hasn’t inked any deals with companies. But Woelk expects that to change once the “simplicity, low cost and high return becomes apparent” compared with other options.