IBM 5 in 5 | Five innovations that will help change our lives within five years

Smart sensors will detect environmental pollution at the speed of light

The people that shaped the future

In five years, new, affordable sensing technologies deployed near natural gas extraction wells, around storage facilities, and along distribution pipelines will enable the industry to pinpoint invisible leaks in real-time.




Most pollutants are invisible to the human eye, until their effects make them impossible to ignore. Methane, for example, is the primary component of natural gas, commonly considered a clean energy source. But if methane leaks into the air before being used, it can warm the Earth’s atmosphere. Methane is estimated to be the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide (CO2).

In the United States, emissions from oil and gas systems are the largest industrial source of methane gas in the atmosphere. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than nine million metric tons of methane leaked from natural gas systems in 2014. Measured as CO2-equivalent over 100 years, that’s more greenhouse gases than were emitted by all U.S. iron and steel, cement and aluminum manufacturing facilities combined.


In five years


Networks of IoT sensors wirelessly connected to the cloud will provide continuous monitoring of the vast natural gas infrastructure, allowing leaks to be found in a matter of minutes instead of weeks, reducing pollution and waste and the likelihood of catastrophic events.


How this could change the world

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Detect leaks

Pinpoint invisible methane and other chemical leaks in real-time.

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New insights

Use AI to analyze and extract sensor data to gain new insights about the spread of pollutants.

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Complex models

Combine sensor data with IoT data sets to build complex environmental models to detect pollutants.

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Respiratory illness detection

Detect contaminants in exhaled human breath to improve diagnosis of respiratory disease.


In the next five years, networks of sensors like this miniature silicon chip trace-gas spectrometer, made by IBM Research, will help us "see" and reliably detect methane on-the-chip, done here using infrared light brought in via optical fibers. Thousands of sensors can be manufactured on each silicon wafer, supporting large-scale sensor networks at low cost.


Scientists at IBM are working with natural gas producers such as Southwestern Energy to explore the development of an intelligent methane monitoring system and as part of the ARPA-E Methane Observation Networks with Innovative Technology to Obtain Reductions (MONITOR) program.

At the heart of IBM’s research is silicon photonics, an evolving technology that transfers data by light, allowing computing literally at the speed of light. These chips could be embedded in a network of sensors on the ground or within infrastructure, or even fly on autonomous drones; generating insights that, when combined with real-time wind data, satellite data, and other historical sources, can be used to build complex environmental models to detect the origin and quantity of pollutants as they occur.

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IBM scientists use microscopes to carefully manipulate and design silicon photonic chips that contain infrared light sensors for detecting methane.

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IBM Researchers Chi Xiong, Norma Sosa and Will Green prepare a sensor for testing in the lab.

What is IBM Research disrupting today?


IBM 5 in 5 predictions