In principle any source of infrared radiation could be used, together with an optical system of lenses or mirrors to form the transmitted beam. In practice the following sources have been used, always with some form of modulation to aid the signal processing at the receiver:
An incandescent light bulb, modulated by pulsing the current powering the filament or by a mechanical chopper. For systems used outdoors, it is difficult for an incandescent source to compete with the intensity of sunlight when the sun shines directly into the receiver. Also, it is difficult to achieve modulation frequencies distinguishable from those that can be produced naturally, for instance by heat shimmer or by sunlight reflecting off waves at sea.
A gas-discharge lamp is capable of exceeding the spectral power of direct sunlight in the infrared, especially when pulsed. Modern open path systems typically use a xenon flashtube powered by a capacitor discharge. Such pulsed sources are inherently modulated.
A semiconductor laser provides a relatively weak source, but one that can be modulated at high frequency in wavelength as well as amplitude. This property permits various signal processing schemes based on Fourier analysis, of use when the absorption of the gas is weak but narrow in spectral linewidth.
The precise wavelength passbands used must be isolated from the broad infrared spectrum. In principle any conventional spectrometer technique is possible, but the NDIR technique with multilayer dielectric filters and beamsplitters is most often used. These wavelength-defining components are usually located in the receiver, although one design has shared the task with the transmitter.
At the receiver, the infrared signal strengths are measured by some form of infrared detector. Generally photodiode detectors are preferred, and are essential for the higher modulation frequencies, whereas slower photoconductive detectors may be required for longer wavelength regions. The signals are fed to low-noise amplifiers, then invariably subject to some form of digital signal processing. The absorption coefficient of the gas will vary across the passband, so the simple Beer–Lambert law cannot be applied directly. For this reason the processing usually employs a calibration table, applicable for a particular gas, type of gas, or gas mixture, and sometimes configurable by the user.