Measuring weak water vapour absorption using a supercontinuum source (MASS)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Meteorology


MASS is a proof-of-concept proposal to assess the potential of coupling a super-continuum light source (SCLS) to a Fourier Transform Spectrometer (FTS) to achieve high-precision molecular spectroscopy. The proposed pilot application is to make new measurements of the weak (continuum) absorption of water vapour in the 1.6 micron near-infrared window in atmospheric conditions, which, if successful, would lead to a major advance in our understanding of the nature of that absorption. The work has a much wider relevance to improved measurements at other wavelength and to the characterisation of a wide range of weak absorption by other gases and particulates of importance in spectroscopy, atmospheric and planetary science and environmental monitoring.

The work falls in the "Environment" priority area of the Global Challenges call. It is of direct relevance to the "water", "monitoring" and "underpinning of climate system modelling" sub-themes. It links atmospheric science expertise at the University of Reading and the laboratory-based molecular spectroscopy expertise at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory Molecular Spectroscopy Facility.

SCLS are a new compact way of generating "white" light. SCLS offers unique advantages that can strongly benefit the field of high resolution precision spectroscopy using FTS. They could replace the traditionally-used incandescent lamps. Features include:

(1) Brightness: Incandescent lamps are rather inefficient in delivering broadband light. SCLS are far brighter sources (about three orders of magnitude at wavelengths of 1.6 micron compared to traditional lamps) which maintain a broadband nature. If a detector-limited FTS with the required dynamic range is assumed, the brightness benefits turns directly into a signal to noise ratio improvement on the recorded spectra.

(2) Spatial coherence: Unlike lamps, SCLS are spatially coherent sources in a similar way to laser light. This fundamental difference brings unique propagation benefits to be exploited in precision molecular spectroscopy. One way to improve spectrometer sensitivity consists of increasing the interaction length between the sample and light. With incoherent light such as emitted by lamps, the number of passes remains limited to typically ~15 passes (in a muli-pass cell). Owing to far better propagation characteristics, coherent light from SCLS can be more effectively folded with passes of 40-200 possible.

(3) Noise of SCLS: Due to the complexity of non-linear effects producing the super continuum, noise properties of SCLS are still being researched. They are fundamentally noisy sources that can nevertheless approach the ideal realization of a low-noise coherent source when the source driving parameters are optimized. Previous work suggests that source power referencing is necessary to achieve detector limited spectroscopy and fully benefit from the SCLS power advantage.

The application of the new system proposed here is the improved characterisation of the near-infrared continuum absorption due to water vapour. The unstructured continuum absorption due to water vapour is of most importance in atmospheric science in the "windows" between the rotation and vibration-rotation bands of water vapour. These windows are also widely used in remote sensing to derive the properties of the Earth's surface, clouds and atmospheric aerosols, for which water vapour absorption acts as an interference that must be removed for robust retrieval of the properties of interest. The focus here is on the 1.6 micron window as recent near-room-temperature absorption measurements using a variety of techniques disagree by orders of magnitude, and there is limited understanding of the temperature dependence.

Planned Impact

Immediate impact generated by the proposed concept relates to modelling of the Earth System, namely improved understanding of climate and climate change. Improved input data into models propagates to reduce uncertainty in prediction and understanding. This will be to the benefit of both the national and international policy-making community and to sectors impacted by any resulting legislation, with ultimate impact felt by the wider public To realise this impact, improved spectral data to feed into atmospheric radiative transfer codes needs to be obtained at a much larger scale than the proof of concept project allows. The scientific material generated during the proof-of-concept will be used to strengthen large scale proposals, such as NERC consortium grants, or European Research Council advanced grants. The impact would be mostly downstream of these larger-scale proposals.

Impact will also be significant in the field of Earth Observation and atmospheric sensing. As the precision of sensing instrument increases, requirements on accuracy of spectroscopic data needed to process data become more stringent. The concept proposed will contribute to the building of the next generation of molecular database used in satellite data processing. As a results more accurate information on atmospheric composition (pollution, greenhouse gas emission, transport...) can be obtained. Opportunities are to be expected in this area as molecular spectral database are to be overhauled in the medium term. A new set of atmospheric remote sounders requires improve radiative transfer codes, and uncertainty on spectral data remains a live issue. Again, the ultimate beneficiaries of improved monitoring of the Earth system are the policymaking communities and sectors mentioned above.

The benefits of the proposed project also spread to astronomy and planetary sciences though improved knowledge on planets' atmosphere, improved detection of exoplanets, and characterization of interstellar matter. The outcome of the project will be advertised to the relevant communities through existing links within STFC.

In addition, optical sensing based on spectroscopy has largely developed in many areas, which include geochemistry, environmental monitoring, non-invasive medical screening, industrial applications (oil and gas, pharmaceutical, agronomy, combustion), and security and defence. The Spectroscopy Group at RAL is well connected with these sectors and work with the business development team at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (STFC Innovation Ltd - SIL). The proposal investigators at RAL are actively involved in collaborations with SIL to exploit research outcomes. A greatly improved molecular spectroscopy facility through the use of the latest supercontinuum light source would certainly offer a discriminating key advantage.


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Description Water vapour is an important component of the climate system, as it plays a major role in controlling how much sunlight is absorbed, and how much infrared radiation is emitted and absorbed, by the Earth's atmosphere. To understand this role, it is necessary to make laboratory observations of the properties of water vapour.

This pilot project focused on an underexplored region of the infrared spectrum, where there are few previous meaurements and significant disagreement between the measurements that do exist. The aim was to explore the potential for a newly emerging technology (so-called "supercontinuum light sources") to be used in such measurements, and compare them to the standard ("halogen lamp") technology which is normally used. The new light sources are known several advantages over the old sources, but also have several challenges, and so success was not guaranteed. To our knowledge this was the first time that such a system has been deployed to measure the characteristics of water vapour.

The measurements were made at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and analysed at the University of Reading, in very close collaboration with DrSc Igor Ptashnik from the Institute of Atmospheric Optics in Tomsk Russia.

The project has successfully demonstrated the technique's potential at wavelengths of 2.2 microns. The new measurements were shown to be fully consistent with previous"old technology" measurements made under previous EPSRC/NERC funding, but with smaller uncertainties because of important characteristics of the new light source.

Measurements were also attempted at wavelengths of 1.6 microns, where the absorption by water vapour is much weaker, and hence more challenging. These measurements were unsuccessful in themselves, because of "noise" in the measurements. However, the attempt to do was important experience. It has led to ideas as to how the new light source could be successfully used in future work, by implementing the light source within a more advanced system, which was beyond the resources available in this pilot project.
Exploitation Route The exploitation and development of the system was a key part of a successful research NERC Discovery Grant proposal "Advanced Spectrospcopy for improved characterisation of the near-Infrared water vapour Continuum (ASPIC)" NE/R009848/1 (6/2018 to 5/2021)

The new work on the 2.2 micron measurements was featured in a review article published in the Journal of Molecular Spectroscopy in 2016.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Energy,Environment

Description The pilot work carried out in this project has now been published and so brought to the attention of a wider audience. The work formed a key part of a NERC Discovery Grant Proposal NE/R009848/1 (Advanced Spectrospcopy for improved characterisation of the near-Infrared water vapour Continuum (ASPIC)) 6/2018 - 5/2021, where the techniques developed in the project is being further developed and exploited and we expect downstream impact beyond academia (for example in weather forecast and climate prediction centres) to accrue from this. Staff from weather forecast and climate prediction centres (Met Office and ECMWF) are project partners on ASPIC.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Energy,Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description NERC Discovery Science
Amount £799,237 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/R009848/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2018 
End 05/2021