Tag Archives: Infrared Imaging

Personal thermal vision could turn millions of students into the cleantech workforce of today

So we have signed the Paris Agreement and cheered about it. Now what?

More than a year ago, I wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation to test the feasibility of empowering students to help combat the energy issues of our nation. There are hundreds of millions of buildings in our country and some of them are pretty big energy losers. The home energy industry currently employs probably 100,000 people at most. It would take them a few decades to weatherize and solarize all these residential and commercial buildings (let alone educating home owners so that they would take such actions).

But there are millions of students in schools who are probably more likely to be concerned about the world that they are about to inherit. Why not ask them to help?

You probably know a lot of projects on this very same mission. But I want to do something different. Enough messaging has been done. We don't need to hand out more brochures and flyers about the environmental issues that we may be facing. It is time to call for actions!

For a number of years, I have been working on infrared thermography and building energy simulation to knock down the technical barriers that these techniques may pose to children. With NSF awarding us a $1.2M grant last year and FLIR releasing a series of inexpensive thermal cameras, the time of bringing these tools to large-scale applications in schools has finally arrived.

For more information, see our poster that will be presented at a NSF meeting next week. Note that this project has just begun so we haven't had a chance to test the solarization part. But the results from the weatherization part based on infrared thermography has been extremely encouraging!

Infrared imaging evidence of geothermal energy in a basement

Geothermal energy is the thermal energy generated or stored in the Earth. The ground maintains a nearly constant temperature six meter (20 feet) under, which is roughly equal to the average annual air temperature at the location. In Boston, this is about 13 °C (55 °F).

You can feel the effect of the geothermal energy in a basement, particularly in a hot summer day in which the basement can be significantly cooler. But IR imaging provides a unique visualization of this effect.

I happen to have a sub-basement that is partially buried in the ground. When I did an IR inspection of my basement in an attempt to identify places where heat escapes in a cold night, something that I did not expect struck me: As I scanned the basement, the whole basement floor appeared to be 4-6 °F warmer than the walls. Both the floor and wall of my basement are simply concrete -- there is no insulation, but the walls are partially or fully exposed to the outside air, which was about 24 °F at that time.

This temperature distribution pattern is opposite to the typical temperature gradient observed in a heated room where the top of a wall is usually a few degrees warmer than the bottom of a wall or the floor as hot air rises to warm up the upper part.

The only explanation of this warming of the basement floor is geothermal energy, caught by the IR camera.

Visualizing thermal equilibration: IR imaging vs. Energy2D simulation

Figure 1
A classic experiment to show thermal equilibration is to put a small Petri dish filled with some hot or cold water into a larger one filled with tap water around room temperature, as illustrated in Figure 1. Then stick one thermometer in the inner dish and another in the outer dish and take their readings over time.

With a low-cost IR camera like the FLIR C2 camera or FLIR ONE camera, this experiment becomes much more visual (Figure 2). As an IR camera provides a full-field view of the experiment in real time, you get much richer information about the process than a graph of two converging curves from the temperature data read from the two thermometers.
Figure 2

The complete equilibration process typically takes 10-30 minutes, depending on the initial temperature difference between the water in the two dishes and the amount of water in the inner dish. A larger temperature difference or a larger amount of water in the inner dish will require more time to reach the thermal equilibrium.

Another way to quickly show this process is to use our Energy2D software to create a computer simulation (Figure 3). Such a simulation provides a visualization that resembles the IR imaging result. The advantage is that it runs very fast -- only 10 seconds or so are needed to reach the thermal equilibrium. This allows you to test various conditions rapidly, e.g., changing the initial temperature of the water in the inner dish or the outer dish or changing the diameters of the dishes.

Figure 3
Both real-world experiments and computer simulations have their own pros and cons. Exactly which one to use depends on your situation. As a scientist, I believe nothing beats real-world experiments in supporting authentic science learning and we should always favor them whenever possible. However, conducting real-world experiments requires a lot of time and resources, which makes it impractical to implement throughout a course. Computer simulations provide an alternative solution that allows students to get a sense of real-world experiments without entailing the time and cost. But the downside is that a computer simulation, most of the time, is an overly simplified scientific model that does not have the many layers of complexity and the many types of interactions that we experience in reality. In a real-world experiment, there are always unexpected factors and details that need to be attended to. It is these unexpected factors and details that create genuinely profound and exciting teachable moments. This important nature of science is severely missing in computer simulations, even with a sophisticated computational fluid dynamics tool such as Energy2D.

Here is my balancing of this trade-off equation: It is essential for students to learn simplified scientific models before they can explore complex real-world situations. The models will give students the frameworks needed to make sense of real-world observation. A fair strategy is to use simulations to teach simplified models and then make some time for students to conduct experiments in the real world and learn how to integrate and apply their knowledge about the models to solve real problems.

A side note: You may be wondering how well the Energy2D result agrees with the IR result on a quantitative basis. This is kind of an important question -- If the simulation is not a good approximation of the real-world process, it is not a good simulation and one may challenge its usefulness, even for learning purposes. Figure 4 shows a comparison of a test run. As you can see, the while the result predicted by Energy2D agrees in trend with the results observed through IR imaging, there are some details in the real data that may be caused by either human errors in taking the data or thermal fluctuations in the room. What is more, after the thermal equilibrium was reached, the water in both dishes continued to cool down to room temperature and then below due to evaporative cooling. The cooling to room temperature was modeled in the Energy2D simulation through a thermal coupling to the environment but evaporative cooling was not.

Figure 4

An infrared investigation on a Stirling engine

Figure 1
The year 2016 marks the 200th anniversary of an important invention of Robert Stirling -- the Stirling engine. So I thought I should start this year's blogging with a commemoration article about this truly ingenious invention.

A Stirling engine is a closed-cycle heat engine that operates by cyclic compression and expansion of air or other gas by a temperature difference across the engine. A Stirling engine is able to convert thermal energy into mechanical work.

You can buy an awesome toy Stirling engine from Amazon (perhaps next Christmas's gift for some inquisitive minds). If you put it on top of a cup of hot water, this amazing machine will just run until the hot water cools down to the room temperature.

Figure 2
Curious about whether the Stirling circle would actually accelerate the cooling process, I filled hot water into two identical mugs and covered one of them with the Stirling engine. Then I started the engine and observed what happened to the temperature through an IR camera. It turned out that the mug covered by the engine maintained a temperature about 10 °C higher than the open mug in about 30 minutes of observation time. If you have a chance to do this experiment, you probably would be surprised. The flying wheel of the Stirling engine seems to be announcing that it is working very hard by displaying fast spinning and making a lot of noise. But all that energy, visual and audible as it is, is no match to the thermal energy lost through evaporation of water from the open hot mug (Figure 1).

How about comparing the Stirling engine with heat transfer? I found a metal box that has approximately the same size and same thickness with our Stirling engine. I refilled the hot water to the two mugs and covered one with the metal box and the other with the Stirling engine. Then I started the engine and tracked their temperatures through the IR camera. It turned out that the rates of heat loss from the two mugs were about the same in about 30 minutes of observation. What this really means is that the energy that drove the engine was actually very small compared with the thermal energy that is lost to the environment through heat transfer (Figure 2).

This is understandable because the speed of the flying wheel is only a small fraction of the average speed of molecules (which is about the speed of sound or higher). This investigation also suggests that the Stirling engine is very efficient. Had we insulated the mug, it would have run for hours.

Chemical imaging using infrared cameras

Figure 1: Evaporative cooling
Scientists have long relied on powerful imaging techniques to see things invisible to the naked eye and thus advance science. Chemical imaging is a technique for visualizing chemical composition and dynamics in time and space as actual events unfold. In this sense, infrared (IR) imaging is a chemical imaging technique as it allows one to see temporal and spatial changes of temperature distribution and, just like in other chemical imaging techniques, infer what is occurring at the molecular level based on these information.

Figure 2: IR imaging
Most IR cameras are sensitive enough to pick up a temperature difference of 0.1°C or less. This sensitivity makes it possible to detect certain effects from the molecular world. Figure 1 provides an example that suggests this possibility.

This experiment, which concerns evaporation of water, cannot be simpler: Just pour some room-temperature water into a plastic cup, leave it for a few hours, and then aim an IR camera at it. In stark contrast to the thermal background, the whole cup remains 1-2°C cooler than the room temperature (Figure 2). About how much water evaporation is enough to keep the cup this cool? Let’s do a simple calculation. Our measurement showed that in a typical dry and warm office environment in the winter, a cup of water (10 cm diameter) loses approximately six grams of water in 24 hours. That is to say, the evaporation rate is 7×10-5 g/s or 7×10-11 m3/s. Divided by the surface area of the cup mouth, which is 0.00785 m2, we obtain that the thickness of the layer of water that evaporates in a second is 8.9 nm—that is roughly the length of only 30 water molecules lining up shoulder to shoulder! It is amazing to notice that just the evaporation of this tiny amount of water at such a slow rate (a second is a very long time for molecules) suffices to sustain a temperature difference of 1-2°C for the entire cup. 

This simple experiment actually raises more questions than it answers. Based on the latent heat of vaporization of water, which is about 2265 J/g, we estimate that the rate of energy loss through evaporation is only 0.16 J/s. This rate of energy loss should have a negligible effect on the 200 g of water in the cup as the specific heat of water is 4.186 J/(g×°C). So where does this cooling effect come from? How does it persist? Would the temperature of water be even lower if there is less water in the cup? What would the temperature difference be if the room temperature changes? These questions pose great opportunities to engage students to propose their hypotheses and test them with more experiments. It is through the quest to the answers that students learn to think and act like scientists.

IR imaging is an ideal tool for guided inquiry as it eliminates the tedious data collection procedures and focuses students on data analysis. In the practice of inquiry, data analysis is viewed as more important than data collection in helping students develop their thinking skills and conceptual understandings. Although this cooling effect can also be investigated using a thermometer, students’ perception might be quite different. An IR camera immediately shows that the entire cup, not just the water surface, is cooler. Seeing the bulk of the cup in blue color may prompt students to think more deeply and invite new questions, whereas a single temperature reading from a thermometer may not deliver the same experience.

Simulating geometric thermal bridges using Energy2D

Fig. 1: IR image of a wall junction (inside) by Stefan Mayer
One of the mysterious things that causes people to scratch their heads when they see an infrared picture of a room is that the junctions such as edges and corners formed by two exterior walls (or floors and roofs) often appear to be colder in the winter than other parts of the walls, as is shown in Figure 1. This is, I hear you saying, caused by an air gap between two walls. But not that simple! While a leaking gap can certainly do it, the effect is there even without a gap. Better insulation only makes the junctions less cold.

Fig. 2: An Energy2D simulation of thermal bridge corners.
A typical explanation of this phenomenon is that, because the exterior surface of a junction (where the heat is lost to the outside) is greater than its interior surface (where the heat is gained from the inside), the junction ends up losing thermal energy in the winter more quickly than a straight part of the walls, causing it to be colder. The temperature difference is immediately revealed by a very sensitive IR camera. Such a junction is commonly called a geometric thermal bridge, which is different from material thermal bridge that is caused by the presence of a more conductive piece in a building assembly such as a steel stud in a wall or a concrete floor of a balcony.

Fig. 3: IR image of a wall junction (outside) by Stefan Mayer
But the actual heat transfer process is much more complicated and confusing. While a wall junction does create a difference in the surface areas of the interior and exterior of the wall, it also forms a thicker area through which the heat must flow through (the area is thicker because it is in a diagonal direction). The increased thickness should impede the heat flow, right?

Fig. 4: An Energy2D simulation of a L-shaped wall.
Unclear about the outcome of these competing factors, I made some Energy2D simulations to see if they can help me. Figure 2 shows the first one that uses a block of object remaining at 20 °C to mimic a warm room and the surrounding environment of 0 °C, with a four-side wall in-between. Temperature sensors are placed at corners, as well as the middle point of a wall. The results show that the corners are indeed colder than other parts of the walls in a stable state. (Note that this simulation only involves heat diffusion, but adding radiation heat transfer should yield similar results.)

What about more complex shapes like an L-shaped wall that has both convex and concave junctions? Figure 3 shows the IR image of such a wall junction, taken from the outside of a house. In this image, interestingly enough, the convex edge appears to be colder, but the concave edge appears to be warmer!

The Energy2D simulation (Figure 4) shows a similar pattern like the IR image (Figure 3). The simulation results show that the temperature sensor placed near the concave edge outside the L-shape room does register a higher temperature than other sensors.

Now, the interesting question is, does the room lose more energy through a concave junction or a convex one? If we look at the IR image of the interior taken inside the house (Figure 1), we would probably say that the convex junction loses more energy. But if we look at the IR image of the exterior taken outside the house (Figure 3), we would probably say that the concave junction loses more energy.

Which statement is correct? I will leave that to you. You can download the Energy2D simulations from this link, play with them, and see if they help you figure out the answer. These simulations also include simulations of the reverse cases in which heat flows from the outside into the room (the summer condition).

The National Science Foundation funds large-scale applications of infrared cameras in schools


We are pleased to announce that the National Science Foundation has awarded the Concord Consortium, Next Step Living, and Virtual High School a grant of $1.2M to put innovative technologies such as infrared cameras into the hands of thousands of secondary students. This education-industry collaborative will create a technology-enhanced learning pathway from school to home and then to cognate careers, establishing thereby a data-rich testbed for developing and evaluating strategies for translating innovative technology experiences into consistent science learning and career awareness in different settings. While there have been studies on connecting science to everyday life or situating learning in professional scenarios to increase the relevance or authenticity of learning, the strategies of using industry-grade technologies to strengthen these connections have rarely been explored. In many cases, often due to the lack of experiences, resources, and curricular supports, industry technologies are simply used as showcases or demonstrations to give students a glimpse of how professionals use them to solve problems in the workplace.


Over the last few years, however, quite a number of industry technologies have become widely accessible to schools. For example, Autodesk has announced that their software products will be freely available to all students and teachers around the world. Another example is infrared cameras that I have been experimenting and blogging since 2010. Due to the continuous development of electronics and optics, what used to be a very expensive scientific instrument is now only a few hundred dollars, with the most affordable infrared camera falling below $200.

The funded project, called Next Step Learning, will be the largest-scale application of infrared camera in secondary schools -- in terms of the number of students that will be involved in the three-year project. We estimate that dozens of schools and thousands of students in Massachusetts will participate in this project. These students will use infrared cameras provided by the project to thermally inspect their own homes. The images in this blog post are some of the curious images I took in my own house using the FLIR ONE camera that is attached to an iPhone.

In the broader context, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) envisions “three-dimensional learning” in which the learning of disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts is integrated with science and engineering practices. A goal of the NGSS is to make science education more closely resemble the way scientists and engineers actually think and work. To accomplish this goal, an abundance of opportunities for students to practice science and engineering through solving authentic real-world problems will need to be created and researched. If these learning opportunities are meaningfully connected to current industry practices using industry-grade technologies, they can also increase students’ awareness of cognate careers, help them construct professional identities, and prepare them with knowledge and skills needed by employers, attaining thereby the goals of both science education and workforce development simultaneously. The Next Step Learning project will explore, test, and evaluate this strategy.

SimBuilding on iPad

SimBuilding (alpha version) is a 3D simulation game that we are developing to provide a more accessible and fun way to teach building science. A good reason that we are working on this game is because we want to teach building science concepts and practices to home energy professionals without having to invade someone's house or risk ruining it (well, we have to create or maintain some awful cases for teaching purposes, but what sane property owner would allow us to do so?). We also believe that computer graphics can be used to create some cool effects that demonstrate the ideas more clearly, providing complementary experiences to hands-on learning. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation to support technical education and workforce development.

SimBuilding is based on three.js, a powerful JavaScript-based graphics library that renders 3D scenes within the browser using WebGL. This allows it to run on a variety of devices, including the iPad (but not on a smartphone that has less horsepower, however). The photos in this blog post show how it looks on an iPad Mini, with multi-touch support for navigation and interaction.

In its current version, SimBuilding only supports virtual infrared thermography. The player walks around in a virtual house, challenged to correctly identify home energy problems in a house using a virtual IR camera. The virtual IR camera will show false-color IR images of a large number of sites when the player inspects them, from which the player must diagnose the causes of problems if he believes the house has been compromised by problems such as missing insulation, thermal bridge, air leakage, or water damage. In addition to the IR camera, a set of diagnostics tools is also provided, such as a blower-door system that is used to depressurize a house for identifying infiltration. We will also provide links to our Energy2D simulations should the player become interested in deepening their understanding about heat transfer concepts such as conduction, convection, and radiation.

SimBuilding is a collaborative project with New Mexico EnergySmart Academy at Santa Fe. A number of industry partners such as FLIR Systems and Building Science Corporation are also involved in this project. Our special thanks go to Jay Bowen of FLIR, who generously provided most of the IR images used to create the IR game scenes free of charge.

Comparing two smartphone-based infrared cameras

Figure 1
With the releases of two competitively priced IR cameras for smartphones, the year 2014 has become a milestone for IR imaging. Early in 2014, FLIR unveiled the $349 FLIR ONE, the first IR camera that can be attached to an iPhone. Months later, a startup company Seek Thermal released a $199 IR camera that has an even higher resolution and is attachable to most smartphones. In addition, another company Therm-App released an Android mobile thermal camera that specializes in long-range night vision and high-resolution thermography, priced at $1,600. The race is on... Into 2015, FLIR announced a new version of FLIR ONE that supports both Android and iOS and will probably be even more aggressively priced.

Figure 2
All these game changers can take impressive IR images just like taking conventional photos and record IR videos just like recording conventional videos, and then share them online through an app. The companies also provide a software developers kit (SDK) for a third party to create apps linked to their cameras. Excited by these new developments, researchers at several Swedish universities and I have embarked an international collaboration towards the vision that IR cameras will one day become as necessary as microscopes in science labs.

Figure3
To test these new IR cameras, I did an easy-to-do experiment (Figure 1) that shows a paradoxical warming effect on a piece of paper placed on top of a cup of (slightly cooler than) room-temperature water. This seemingly simple experiment actually leads to very deep science at the molecular level, as blogged before.

I took images using FLIR ONE (Figure 2) and SEEK (Figure 3), respectively. These images are shown to the right for comparison. As you can see, both cameras are sensitive enough to capture the small temperature rise caused by water absorption and condensation underside the paper.

The FLIR ONE has a nice feature that contextualizes the false-color IR image by overlaying it on top of the edges (where brightness changes sharply) of the true-color image taken at the same time by the conventional camera of the smartphone. With this feature, you can see the sharp edges of the paper in Figure 2.

The time of infrared imaging in classrooms has arrived

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2014, FLIR Systems debuted the FLIR ONE, the first thermal imager for smartphones that sells for $349. Compared with standalone IR cameras that often cost between $1,000 and $60,000, this is a huge leap forward for the IR technology to be adopted by millions.

With this price tag, FLIR ONE finally brings the power of infrared imaging to science classrooms. Our unparalleled Infrared Tube is dedicated to IR imaging experiments for science and engineering education. This website publishes the experiments I have designed to showcase cool IR visualizations of natural phenomena. Each experiment comes with an illustration of the setup (so you can do it yourself) and a short IR video recorded from the experiment. Teachers and students may watch these YouTube videos to get an idea about how the unseen world of thermodynamics and heat transfer looks like through an IR camera -- before deciding to buy such a camera.

For example, this post shows one of my IR videos that probably can give you some idea why the northern people are spraying salt on the road like crazy in this bone-chilling weather. The video demonstrates a phenomenon called freezing point depression, a process in which adding a solute to a solvent decreases the freezing point of the solvent. Spraying salt to the road melts the ice and prevents water from freezing. Check out this video for an infrared view of this mechanism!