Getting the Sense that Sensors are IN: Sensors, Carbon Dioxide, and Climate Change

By Rebecca Samad, Data Analyst

OCO spacecraft-high

When I first heard the term “space program” here at RoundhouseOne (RH1), I heard “NASA.” In actuality, in the context of what MKThink does, “space program” refers to organizing and restructuring a physical space to improve the comfort of its inhabitants. Ah. I see…

All told, NASA and RH1 do have similarities when it comes to how we collect, treat, and analyze our data. We both use the analysis process to reveal novel information about a physical environment.

RH1 employs many sensors, including a non-dispersive infrared sensor used to measure carbon dioxide concentration in a room. NASA’s upcoming satellite mission, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory – 2 (OCO-2) will also collect atmospheric carbon dioxide data, but on a global scale and with a global goal.

RH1’s sensor measures CO2 levels in a room. It has a chamber through which the ambient atmosphere flows. An infrared lamp shines down the tube toward a detector. CO2 particles absorb only particular wavelengths of light, so whatever percentage of the light is absorbed before it hits the detector reveals the concentration of CO2 particles in the air. This is under the valid assumption that there are no other particles in the air that absorb the exact same wavelength.


Measurements are being made with this type of sensor all over the world, providing a massive amount of data on this gas. For our purpose of determining the room air quality and therefore the health of the ventilation system, we only need the local environment’s information. When talking of global climate change, however, some crucial information is missing.

So what’s the deal with global climate change (aka “global warming”)?  Humans are contributing high amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere without re-absorbing it, unlike many of the natural processes on Earth that also produce CO2. Although accurate concentration measurements from ground-based sensors do exist, we don’t yet have a full scope of measurements necessary for understanding all aspects of the global carbon cycle.


OCO-2 has a similar sensor to RH1’s that instead of using an artificial infrared lamp, it utilizes natural light. It measures sunlight reflected from the Earth’s surface. An albedo (reflectivity value) of 1.0 indicates that all incident light is reflected and an albedo of 0 indicates absorption of all incident light. Since we know the reflective factor for each of Earth’s various topographies, the sensor can record how much of a particular infrared wavelength of sunlight is being absorbed by CO2 particles, upon its reflection back through the atmosphere.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory will seek out potential global sources and sinks of carbon dioxide, in order to answer the question: to what extent can our forests and oceans combat the human-accelerated rise in greenhouse gas levels?

But why is this comparison so interesting?

At MKThink and Roundhouse One, we value the crossover of the built and natural environments. Our innovation pushes across disciplines and shares the same data-driven purpose that drives innovators like the U.S. space program. We, as a firm, value perspectives beyond the local, and value knowledge outside our immediate scope.

The built, the natural, and the innovative go hand in hand in hand. Think about it.



“How Does an NDIR CO2 Sensor Work?” N.p., 1 May 2012. Web. 12 Feb. 2014.

“How to Measure Carbon Dioxide.” N.p., 2012. Web. <>.

“”OCO-2 Orbiting Carbon Observatory”” JPL: Jet Propulsion Laboratory. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2014. <>.

Vidal, John, and Damian Carrington. “IPCC Climate Report: The Digested Read.” Guardian News and Media, 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 10 Jan. 2014.


Thanks to Sean Dasey and Brett Madres from RH1 for the information on our CO2 sensors.



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