Small is beautiful

Brendan Quine, professor of space and planetary physics, in York’s Department of Physics & Astronomy, Faculty of Science & Engineering, and his research team have designed a tiny device that will help Canada monitor its production of greenhouse gas emissions as mandated under the Kyoto Accord.

Right: Brendan Quine

Quine, a specialist in the design of space-borne instrumentation and the observation of planetary atmospheres, participated in a joint project with the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies. He has designed a mini-spectrometer capable of detecting greenhouse gas emissions in areas as small as one square kilometre in size.

“There’s a real concentration of expertise in the field here at York,” says Quine. “Many of our faculty have a strong personal interest in making sure that Kyoto is understood and that its ultimate benefits to the Canadian environment and economy are widely known.”

Weighing just 150 grams, the first prototype of his specialized device is scheduled to be launched into space on a micro-satellite next August. The tiny device will operate for only 20 minutes a day, but can scan a track more than 8,000 km long during this time.

“Small is beautiful when it comes to space-borne instrumentation,” says Quine. “With launch costs approximating $10,000 per kilo, it is important to be as compact as possible.” Despite the diminutive dimensions of the instrument – a scant 50 mm by 80 mm – Quine believes there are no other devices in the world that can get the resolution made possible by this new instrument.

The instrument’s accuracy is important to Quine. “It is vital to the public’s acceptance of the Kyoto Accord’s goals that Canada’s emissions are being measured impartially and accurately, and the best way to do that is to measure them ourselves,” he says.

Quine isn’t looking to track down every poorly-tuned car or backyard barbecue. He is after the big game in the world of emissions. “In the early stages, we really only need to focus on large industrial activity, identify a few really bad polluters, and devise mitigation strategies for them to have a huge effect on emissions.”

There’s more to it than just measuring emissions. “Up until now, we have used a ‘production accountancy’ model to calculate what various industries are emitting,” says Quine. “This provides a fairly reliable estimate of how many tonnes of gas are being sent into the atmosphere, and whether emission rates are rising or falling.”

This model does not tell you what is actually happening to the atmosphere. “We know there has been an exponential increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the last hundred years,” says Quine, “but we don’t know for sure what effect that increase is having on climate change. This project is an important first step to take the guess out of our educated guesswork.”

For more information about Quine’s research, click here.