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  • Cavity-Enhanced Absorption Spectroscopy
    Detects Geothermal Gases

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2007
Lauren Rugani

Gas phase chromatography and mass spectrometry often are used to analyze volcanic emissions because of their ability to detect low levels of trace gases. However, these techniques are limited by their instrumental complexity and inability to withstand the conditions at an active volcanic site.


A minivan that carried instruments for the volcanic gas analysis is shown parked close to the main fumarole inside the crater of the inactive Solfatara volcano near Naples, Italy.

Researchers at Université J. Fourier de Grenoble in St. Martin d’Hères and Université Montpellier, both in France, and Seconda Università di Napoli in Caserta, Italy, have proposed a method for detecting volcanic emissions in situ based on distributed feedback diode lasers that are efficiently coupled with cavity-enhanced absorption spectroscopy by exploiting optical feedback. The team applied this method to probe for the presence of CO, NH3 and CH4 20 m away from an active fumarole of the Solfatara volcano near Naples, Italy, where the gaseous emissions are dominated by H2O and CO2.

“The real-time continuous monitoring of volcanic emissions could permit the early recognition of changes in the activity status that can be a precursor to eruptive or seismic activity,” explained team member Daniele Romanini. Unlike gas phase chromatography or mass spectrometry, optical-feedback cavity-enhanced absorption spectroscopy does not require calibration standards and can operate unattended for several days in a nonlaboratory setting.

For the technique, they used an extended wavelength GaSb-based diode laser operated at 2.33 μm. This wavelength is in an atmospheric transmission window that does not allow the absorption of carbon dioxide or water but does permit simultaneous detection of the less prominent gases of interest.

Light from the diode laser was injected into a V-shaped high-finesse resonator cavity that contained three highly reflective dielectric mirrors. When the laser frequency matches one of the cavity resonances, optical field build-up occurs and may feed back to the laser, causing the laser emission to become narrower than the resonances. An absorption spectrum is obtained by detecting the maximum light transmitted when the cavity is filled at each mode.

The volcanic gas was passed through a gas dryer and cooler, condensing and collecting water vapor at the bottom of a cold trap and allowing the dry gas to be carried to the spectrometer.

Concentration measurements as a function of time showed that there were no variations in the levels of CO and CH4 during the analysis, while observed variations in ammonia concentration were attributed to its solubility in water and retention in the trap. Changes in the concentration of one species did not affect the ability to detect absorption lines of other species in the same region. Measured concentrations for CO and methane were found to be 3 and 76 ppm, respectively.

Detection limits of 16 ppb, 14 ppb and 0.4 ppm (at 8 Hz) were obtained for simultaneous measurement of CO, NH3 and CH4, respectively. Altering the laser temperature to address nearby absorption lines can lower the detection limit for CH4 or NH3 by a factor of 10.

The small sample volume requires little gas flow and a light membrane pump for low-pressure operation, which narrows the absorption lines of different species. “This allows for selective measurements, with low sensitivity to the presence of other species than those being measured,” Romanini said.

The team is working to improve the detection limit and measurement stability of the device and has employed the technique in monitoring greenhouse gases. Applications also might include monitoring industrial toxic emissions and noninvasive medical diagnostics through breath analysis.

Optics Express, Nov. 13, 2006, pp. 11442-11452.

mass spectrometry
An instrumental technique that utilizes the mass-to-charge ratio of charged particles as recorded from a mass spectrometer in order to determine the mass of a particle as well as the chemical makeup, or elemental ionic composition of a given sample or molecule.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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