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Environmental innovation

Satellites to stop ammonia emissions

Ammonia is a growing environmental problem, but satellites can help the agricultural sector minimize emissions. A PhD student from SDU has been awarded the European Space Agency’s sustainability award for developing a system that uses satellites to measure the evaporation of ammonia from fields.

By Birgitte Dalgaard, , 9/9/2019

Photo: Lars Skaaning

For the fifth year in a row, Danish ammonia emissions are on the rise, and the pattern is the same all over Europe.

Although all member states are increasingly focused on atmospheric pollution and deoxygenation, data from the European Environment Agency shows that the agricultural sector in the EU emits still more ammonia.

But now, help may be on its way from above. Some of the almost 2000 satellites that fly around in outer space are to be used in the fight against ammonia by monitoring the evaporation from the fields.

Dangerous particles

- I have no doubt that the data from these satellites can reduce the emissions from the agricultural sector to a minimum, PhD student Simon Vilms Pedersen from SDU Biotechnology says.

He has devised a system where the satellites’ data on ammonia evaporation and weather conditions gives the individual farmer exact information about when to spread manure and how much to spread to minimize the emission of ammonia.

The idea is so groundbreaking that Simon Vilms Pedersen has been awarded the Space for Sustainability award from ESA, the European Space Agency.

Space award

The Space for Sustainability Award from the European Space Agency, ESA, is given out annually to encourage innovative and creative ideas to make outer space contribute to sustainable development that benefits society. The award recipient must be under the age of 30.

According to the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, the agricultural sector is responsible for 97 % of the Danish ammonia pollution, which poses a significant danger to both the environment and public health.

When exposed to air, ammonia changes into particles that are dangerous to humans. In our waters, ammonia leads to algal bloom and thus deoxygenation.

With the EU’s NEC-directive, Denmark is committed to reduce the emission of ammonia by 24 % in 2020 as compared to 2005.

24M to new initiatives

Realizing that it would be difficult to reach this goal, in 2018 the then government allocated $24M to new initiatives to reduce the agricultural sector’s emissions of ammonia. One of those initiatives could very well be harvesting data from space.

- Today, we measure the ammonia emissions on research farms around the country, and I have seen that those measurements can help reduce the emissions.

-Imagine if all farmers had the same, exact information about their fields – and we can get that information to each individual farmer through the satellites, Simon Vilms Pedersen points out.

Ammonia Algorithm

It is not at all irrelevant when or how much manure a farmer is spreading. The type of soil, pH value and the weather have a big influence on how much ammonia is emitted. This is where Simon Vilms Pedersen believes the data from the satellites will be useful to be farmer.

- I would be sorry, if this were to be perceived as surveillance by the farmers. Modern farmers already use IT systems to optimize production. Data on ammonia evaporation is just an extra parameter that can help the farmer to get the most out of the nutrients in the manure while also protecting the environment.

Difficult to separate ammonia

Simon Vilms Pedersen points out that the most difficult element of the new system has been to process the raw data from the satellites.

The output from the satellites is a rag rug of different gases ranging from ammonia to methane and CO2.

- It has not been easy to find a way to separate ammonia from every other gas and across different satellites. But using a combination of several different algorithms made it possible, Simon Vilms Pedersen says.

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Meet the researcher

In addition to being a PhD student, Simon Vilms Pedersen is also an inventor. He developed a mathematical model to make small biogas reactors more efficient – benefitting mountain villages in Vietnam, and he has developed a control system for wind tunnels. Last year, he received the Elite Research travel grant from the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science.

Editing was completed: 09.09.2019