Agricomb–measuring the “digestive processes” of cows more precisely

1. Sustainability Problem: Safety and Health

The “digestive processes”–in other words, the burps and poop–of livestock are significant emitting sources of the greenhouse gas methane as well as ammonia, a harmful pollutant. While the effects of these gases are known, it is difficult to measure them precisely with conventional sensors in agricultural settings due to variability in management and cattle characteristics in different farms. This lack of precise measurement is a significant problem: it can hinder progress in accurately quantifying emissions from large areas, determining environmental dependencies of methane and ammonia emissions factor ratios, and improving understanding of microbial activity and carbon exchange. If more precise measurement techniques can be applied and the methane and ammonia emissions from cattle are better understood, more sustainable and productive cattle management can achieved to ultimately reduce emissions. (

2. Article: “‘Agricomb’ is the perfect tool for measuring gases from cow burps”; Website Name: Ars Technica; Link:

  • Scientists and researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Kansas State University have introduced an “optical frequency comb” called the “agricomb” that measures the gas emissions from cattle by measuring different colors of light. These optical frequency combs are created with lasers that emit pulses of light and each tooth in the comb is a different color of light, depending on the frequency of the light wave oscillation. The agricomb can identify the trace gases in question (methane and ammonia) based on the shades and amounts of infrared light absorbed by the atmosphere.
  • Compared to a commercial sensor, the agricomb was shown to be better at capturing emissions in downward plumes, determining gas sources, and measuring many different gases at the same time.
  • For the first phase of this research, scientists measured emissions from a feedlot holding 300 cows that consumed a mix of hay and corn silage. Next, they want to measure the emissions from fewer cows living in a pasture that consume native grasses instead. By conducting different measurements like these, scientists can identify what type of cattle environment and feed type produces the fewest emissions.

3. Organizational Stakeholders

Farmers would be the main stakeholders involved in implementing this technology. While the agricomb helps address the sustainability goal to reduce methane and ammonia emissions, it may also lead to financial benefits by increasing efficiency and productivity (again, through better understanding of processes by more precise measurement). The usability of this technology, however, is unclear. While farmers are certainly those most affected, it may require an external party, such as the scientists in this study, that possess enough knowledge about the technology in order to operate it. This might require government involvement to fund research in this area in order to achieve federal or state emissions reductions goals. Finally, beef and dairy suppliers may be involved. These stakeholders may wish to lower their Scope 3 emissions and might engage with the farmers and agricomb to do so.

4. Implementation

The first step in implementation would be securing funding to carry out more studies such as the one listed in the article. As mentioned above, the manufacturers or advocates of agricomb should perform outreach to interested parties that have access to capital: in this case, it may be more likely that the beef and dairy suppliers have greater access to this or that the state or federal government have grants available for implementation of emissions reduction technology in the agricultural space.

Second, the agricomb should be tested on a larger scale. The study in the article performed measurements in a feedlot, which is a small and enclosed space. The scientists already plan to conduct measurements in a larger pasture setting and this should be replicated numerous times. It is important to do this to identify areas for improvement in agricomb technology: precise measurement for large-scale farms will be critical in achieving a more significant impact on emissions reductions.

Before the owners of agricomb attempt to deploy the technology on a larger scale, they should engage with farmers and other interested parties to listen to their questions and concerns. By consulting with involved stakeholders early in the process, the manufacturers of agricomb will be able to tweak the technology to meet the needs of the farmers and others. This will create a more desirable result for all parties in the long-run: there will be less miscommunication about resources required to implement the tech on a certain farmer’s land, a farmer or stakeholder who understands the benefits and process will likely support implementation and provide ease of access of land, etc.


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