Energy Tech Talk

Let's Talk Energy with... Stéphane Germain, GHGSat

Air pollution is the world’s greatest environmental health risk—and Montreal’s GHGSat has developed an innovative tool for addressing it. The company’s nanosatellite, slated for launch in 2015, will be able measure emission sources from anywhere in the world. As President Stéphane Germain explains, once in orbit the satellite will give companies the data they need to control and reduce their emissions.

Seven million people die each year from exposure to air pollution, and 90 percent of the urban population lives in cities that do not meet the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines. There is an urgent need to better understand our air quality, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

What if we knew exactly which emissions were affecting our local environment at any given time? Would we create new ways of managing them? The technology we’ve developed at GHGSat will make it possible for industrial facilities to take a closer look at their emissions—whether from specific sources like flare stacks or wider areas like tailing ponds—from anywhere in the world, without the need for on-site equipment.

Scanning for spectral fingerprints

Because different gases absorb light at different wavelengths, each gas has its own ‘fingerprint’ in the electromagnetic spectrum. We’re building a nanosatellite (about the size of a large briefcase) that can look for those spectral fingerprints—and once it finds them, it can calculate how much gas is at a given location at any given time.


GHGSat’s nanosatellite will circle the Earth every 90 minutes, allowing it to scan the entire surface of the planet each day.

Google Maps for GHG emissions

The data we capture will be presented much like Google Maps—but instead of zooming in on specific buildings, a ‘heat map’ overlay will show the concentration of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases around a selected structure, be it a home or an industrial facility.

There are many layers of complexity we can add to the satellite imagery. For example, if you’re looking at a plume of smoke from a manufacturing plant, we can calculate the actual emissions at the time the satellite passed by based on concentration, dispersion and wind. We can even correlate levels of CO2 and CH4 to determine if an emission source is natural or manmade.

After processing the data, GHGSat provides customers with a ‘heat map’ showing emissions like CO2 and CH4.

Giving industry the data to make better decisions

One of the biggest benefits of our solution is that we’ll be able to attach real numbers where there’s currently a lot of uncertainty, like the oil sands. We have customers in that industry with a strong desire to learn as much as they can about the nature of their emissions, which are difficult to quantify from sources like tailing ponds. By linking those emissions to real data in a cost-effective way, companies can take action to better manage and eventually reduce their impact on air quality. The same applies for fracking wells, landfills, generating stations, coal mines. There are many industrial facilities we will be able to measure where it is difficult to get clear data at a reasonable cost.

What’s ahead

With launch scheduled for late 2015, we’re now entering the testing phase of the actual satellite. If the performance of the hardware meets our engineering calculations, we’ll be able to take what is being done today on a local, ad hoc basis—equipment placed on the ground, in a truck or plane to measure emissions from a single facility—and scale it up to the global level. There’s simply no other technology that can do this today. If it performs as well as we think it will, it could become the new standard for emissions monitoring worldwide.

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