The advantages and limitations of the infrared technology for detecting hazardous gases

The advantages and limitations of the infrared technology for detecting hazardous gases

March 30, 2023 . 4min read

Over the last 10 or so years, advances have been made in specifically developing the infrared technology to effectively detect gas leaks. Optical gas imaging (OGI) is an innovative thermal imaging technology that harnesses the power of high-sensitivity IR detectors to spot fugitive emissions from industrial facilities. 

The opportunity for industry professionals to detect gas leaks is not only key to avoiding lost revenue, but also keeping people safe and addressing their ever growing list of environmental challenges. When keeping a close eye on a facility that could potentially have thousands of connections and seals, a fit-for-purpose technology like OGI is the ideal solution with its safe operation and effective performance.

For a clearer insight into this leading-edge technology and its applications for detecting hazardous gases, this article provides the low-down on its advantages and limitations.


The main advantages of the infrared technology for detecting hazardous gases

The IR technology offers a wealth of advantages when it comes to detecting hazardous gases, especially in industry with its need for reliable and effective safety processes.

  • Detecting gases that are invisible to the naked eye

Most of the gases detected by OGI are invisible to the naked eye. IR can identify those gases by heightening and visualizing their ability to absorb specific wavelengths in the infrared band. IR cameras can detect the presence of a gas by picking up on the changes in light intensity that happen when gases absorb certain infrared wavelengths. For example, methane has an absorption band from 3.2 μm to 7.5 μm, while the absorption spectrum of carbon dioxide ranges from 4.2 μm to 4.4 μm. As for refrigerants, the band varies between 8 μm and 8.6 μm.

  • Remote gas detection

The IR technology can also identify and zero in on gas leaks from a distance, meaning that it is ideally suited to inspecting small facilities and large-scale platforms alike. Remote detection systems allow operators to inspect high-voltage or hard-to-reach installations and equipment (e.g. at height). Inspections can be carried out without any need to shut down facilities, which saves considerable money.

The ability to examine installations from a distance is an important consideration, because it shields inspection teams from harm in case of a hazardous gas leak. 

  • Locating gas leaks with pinpoint precision

Thermal imaging can identify a leak with greater precision, as well as view and track the gas plume formed, even after the leak has been repaired. The technology can also hone in on a leak faster, unlike sniffers which rely on scanning-based inspection methods and are unable to locate the gas that has escaped. Sniffers may feature an older and more precise technology, but they take longer to use and are less cost-effective, since more human resources are needed to scan the entire platform. To make matters worse, using sniffers to survey a facility only provides a snapshot in time. Any leaks that happen after the survey will go undetected until the next survey, which explains why their effectiveness is limited.

  • Prioritizing emergencies

Instead of focusing on small leaks with a negligible impact on total emissions, IR can help determine which breaches are spewing the most emissions. Users can harness this intel to arrange leaks in order of severity and prioritize the necessary repairs, which in turn improves the facility's safety and bottom line.

  • Immunity to wind

When it comes to detecting gas leaks, infrared devices have the advantage of being immune to the effects of wind, meaning that they can be used outdoors and potentially in poor weather conditions, unlike sniffers which are rendered useless when the wind is blowing in the opposite direction to their position. This shortcoming has the risk of failing to spot a leak, which could snowball into a significant incident.


A few limitations when using the infrared technology to detect hazardous gases

The IR technology may be a powerhouse of performance, but it still has a few limitations in use, depending on the context and the expected needs. These limitations are often the trade-off for its advantages.

  • Cost of the cooled camera

OGI is an effective technology that needs an embedded cooled infrared sensor to deliver the level of sensitivity required for inspection applications that are subject to regulatory requirements. Incorporating a high-performance cooled detector pushes up the price of these IR cameras. However, users tend to recoup the extra cost by taking less time to carry out their inspections.

  • Inspection costs

With an IR-based inspection, a qualified operator is required to interpret the results, which inflates labor costs. The level of training is also a prerequisite for ensuring high-quality results. However, IR-enabled inspections are still more cost-effective than using sniffers.

  • Unreliable quantification

The IR technology may be capable of pinpointing leaks with tremendous precision, but it lacks reliability when it comes to quantifying the leak, even though this information is needed during the inspection process. Therefore, operators are equipped with sniffers connected to their cameras for quantifying the leak with greater accuracy. As such, these two technologies are not direct rivals, but rather allies.

  • Environmental sensitivity

The IR technology is also dependent on the thermal background of the surrounding environment, which can affect the signal-to-noise ratio. According to analyses on the minimum leak level that can be detected with an OGI camera depending on the detection distance and the temperature difference between the background scene and the gas, the best operating conditions are obtained when detecting small leaks from a few dozen meters away.


The OGI technology may be a relatively new kid on the block, but it is clearly gaining traction through the use of cooled sensors, which raise the efficiency bar higher than the legacy solutions currently available on the market, such as sniffers.

Consequently, the technology is seeing a surge in applications for industrial infrastructures, including oil and gas platforms, which could pose a major threat in case of a gas leak. The same applies to safety at those industrial sites, but it also has applications for emergency services and environmental protection.

For a closer look at how the infrared technology is being rolled out to detect hazardous gases, download the free PESTEL analysis on the OGI market, which provides an overview of the macro-environmental factors that can influence the technology's development.



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