Category Archives: IR

National Science Foundation funds chemical imaging research based on infrared thermography

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Bowling Green State University (BGSU) and Concord Consortium (CC) an exploratory grant of $300 K to investigate how chemical imaging based on infrared (IR) thermography can be used in chemistry labs to support undergraduate learning and teaching.

Chemists often rely on visually striking color changes shown by pH, redox, and other indicators to detect or track chemical changes. About six years ago, I realized that IR imaging may represent a novel class of universal indicators that, instead of using  halochromic compounds, use false color heat maps to visualize any chemical process that involves the absorption, release, or distribution of thermal energy (see my original paper published in 2011). I felt that IR thermography could one day become a powerful imaging technique for studying chemistry and biology. As the technique doesn't involve the use of any chemical substance as a detector, it could be considered as a "green" indicator.

Fig. 1: IR-based differential thermal analysis of freezing point depression
Although IR cameras are not new, inexpensive lightweight models have become available only recently. The releases of two competitively priced IR cameras for smartphones in 2014 marked an epoch of personal thermal vision. In January 2014, FLIR Systems unveiled the $349 FLIR ONE, the first 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 can be connected to most smartphones. The race was on to make better and cheaper cameras. In January 2015, FLIR announced the second-generation FLIR ONE camera, priced at $231 in Amazon. With an educational discount, the price of an IR cameras is now comparable to what a single sensor may cost (e.g., Vernier sells an IR thermometer at $179). All these new cameras can take IR images just like taking conventional photos and record IR videos just like recording conventional videos. The manufacturers also provide application programming interfaces (APIs) for developers to blend thermal vision and computer vision in a smartphone to create interesting apps.

Fig. 2: IR-based differential thermal analysis of enzyme kinetics
Not surprisingly, many educators, including ourselves, have realized the value of IR cameras for teaching topics such as thermal radiation and heat transfer that are naturally supported by IR imaging. Applications in other fields such as chemistry, however, seem less obvious and remain underexplored, even though almost every chemistry reaction or phase transition absorbs or releases heat. The NSF project will focus on showing how IR imaging can become an extraordinary tool for chemical education. The project aims to develop seven curriculum units based on the use of IR imaging to support, accelerate, and expand inquiry-based learning for a wide range of chemistry concepts. The units will employ the predict-observe-explain (POE) cycle to scaffold inquiry in laboratory activities based on IR imaging. To demonstrate the versatility and generality of this approach, the units will cover a range of topics, such as thermodynamics, heat transfer, phase change, colligative properties (Figure 1), and enzyme kinetics (Figure 2).

The research will focus on finding robust evidence of learning due to IR imaging, with the goal to identify underlying cognitive mechanisms and recommend effective strategies for using IR imaging in chemistry education. This study will be conducted for a diverse student population at BGSU, Boston College, Bradley University, Owens Community College, Parkland College, St. John Fisher College, and SUNY Geneseo.

Partial support for this work was provided by the National Science Foundation's Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) program under Award No. 1626228. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Infrared Street View selected as a finalist in Department of Energy’s JUMP competition

JUMP is an online crowdsourcing community hosted by five national laboratories of the US Department of Energy (DOE) and some of the top private companies in the buildings sector. The goal is to broaden the pool of people from whom DOE seeks ideas and to move these ideas to the marketplace faster.

In July, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and CLEAResult launched a Call for Innovation to leverage crowdsourcing to solicit new ideas for saving energy in homes based on smartphone technologies. Modern smartphones are packed with a variety of sensors capable of detecting all kinds of things about their surroundings. Smartphones can determine whether people are home, or close to home, which may be useful for managing their HVAC systems and controlling lighting and appliances. Smartphones can also gather and analyze data to inform homeowners and improve residential energy efficiency.

Infrared images of houses
We responded to the call with a proposal to develop a smartphone app that can be used to create an infrared version of Google's Street View, which we call Infrared Street View. NREL notified us this week that the proposal has been selected as a finalist of the competition and invited us to pitch the idea at the CLEAResult Energy Forum in Austin, TX next month.

The app will integrate smartphone-based infrared imaging (e.g., FLIR ONE) and Google Map, along with built-in sensors of the smartphone such as the GPS sensor and the accelerometer, to create thermal views of streets at night in the winter in order to reveal possible thermal anomalies in neighborhoods and bring awareness of energy efficiency to people. These infrared images may even have business values. For example, they may provide information about the conditions of the windows of a building that may be useful to companies interested in marketing new windows.

The app will be based on the SDK of FLIR ONE and the Google Map API, backed by a program running in the cloud to collect, process, and serve data. The latest FLIR ONE model now costs $249 and works with common Android and iOS devices, making it possible for us to implement this idea. A virtual reality mode will also be added to enhance the visual effect. So this could be an exciting IR+VR+AR (augmented reality) project.

You may be wondering who would be interested in using the app to create the infrared street views. After all, the success of the project depends on the participation of a large number of people. But we are not Google and we do not have the resources to hire a lot of people to do the job. Our plan is to work with schools. We have a current project in which we work with teachers to promote infrared imaging as a novel way to teach thermal energy and heat transfer in classrooms. This is an area in science education that every school covers. Many teachers -- after seeing an infrared camera in action -- are convinced that infrared imaging is the ultimate way to teach thermal science. If this project is used as a capstone activity in thermal science, it is possible that we can reach and motivate thousands of students who would help make this crowdsourcing project a success.

Those who know earlier efforts may consider this initiative a new round to advance the idea. The main new things are: 1) our plan is based on crowdsourcing with potentially a large number of students who are equipped with smartphone-based IR cameras, not a few drive-by trucks with cameras that homeowners have no idea about; 2) the concerns of privacy and legality should be mitigated as students only scan their own houses and neighbors with permissions from their parents and neighbors and only publish their images in the Google Map app when permitted by their parents and neighbors; and, most importantly, 3) unlike the previous projects that do not put people first, our project starts with the education of children and has a better chance to convince adults.

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

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! 

InfraMation Keynote Delivered

Orlando is the center of the thermal imaging universe in November 6-8 when it hosts the largest infrared imaging conference in the world: InfraMation. Invited by FLIR Systems, I gave a Keynote Speech on the educational applications of IR imaging in this morning's Opening Plenary and I felt that it was very well received. The PEPSI joke about how to use an IR camera to produce a PEPSI logo (see the second image in this post) was a hit. Everyone laughed.

Here is the link to download my slides in PDF format (34MB). 

Once again, I was thrilled by the power of IR imaging and how this kind of technology can knock down the barrier between disciplines.Even if we are an educational technology firm with a primary mission to teach science, we are in no place to be humble because the science we are seeing through our IR cameras is exactly the same as the science the industry folks are seeing through theirs. Our original discoveries, intended to teach students science concepts, were equally recognized by world leaders in IR imaging technologies such as Prof. Dr. Michael Vollmer from the University of Applied Sciences in Brandenburg, Germany in their publication intended for researchers and professionals. With cutting-edge and yet easy-to-use technologies like IR imaging, the line between research and education is never so blurry. This ought to get science educators to think about the possibilities opened up by new technologies. We keep hearing some educators pushing back by asserting that children are not scientists and cannot think or act like scientists. This kind of argument largely neglects the advancement of technology and throws away the opportunities they bring along. It is time for a change, at least a try.