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From wildfires to winter inversion, USTAR-supported projects look to better understand Utah’s air quality issues

With Utah’s—and the rest of the western United States’—wildfire season in full swing and winter inversions lurking beyond, several Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) supported projects are aiming to better understand and monitor air pollutants such as wildfire smoke.

Wildfires are a large source of air pollutants in Utah during the summer months. The resulting smoke is composed of a mixture of gases, fine particles, and water vapor that form when organic matter burns. In particular, the fine particulates—that may be from wood and other burning materials—can cause a variety of health concerns.

“We’ve known for the better part of 50 years that the exposure to fine particulates and pollution will make you sick, and can exasperate those conditions like asthma,” said Jaron Hansen, Ph.D., professor at Brigham Young University. “However, from a policy perspective, we’re still trying to collect data about our air quality so we can make more informed business and economic decisions.”

Hansen is a member of a collaborative project funded by USTAR and the Governor’s Office of Energy Development (OED) that is trying to better identify pollutant sources. The joint project—which includes experts from BYU, Utah State University, and Snow College—is studying the air-quality impacts of the oil and gas industry in the Uintah Basin.

Meanwhile along the Wasatch Front, John E. Sohl, Ph.D., a professor at Weber State University who developed a lightweight, flight-ready air quality measuring instrument with USTAR support, conducted a study on summer air conditions. Sohl and his team found that the regional transport of smoke from wildfires throughout much of the West and Utah leads to higher aerosol particulate concentrations and may contribute to higher ozone concentrations, particularly along the Wasatch Front.

“We can tell what type of wood or kindle is being used,” said Sohl, who aims to commercialize the product early next year. “Variables like this may lead to hotter burn temperatures and other factors that may increase certain pollutants in our air here in Utah. Hopefully, with more knowledge we can learn how to disrupt the effects from these fires.”

Wildfires are each unique because the composition of forests and woodlands vary from region to region, in the United States as well as within Utah. Factors that may contribute to the outcome of a wildfire, including the characterization of its pollution, include the type of vegetation or wood burned, the weather, and surrounding topographical features. As a result, each wildfire may give off different pollutants and smoke.

USTAR-supported company, Pollen Sense, in addition to monitoring airborne pollen and mold, aims to better understand the air surrounding wildfires, leading up to the fire and afterwards. A real-time air quality monitoring system that creates 3D imagery of airborne particles, Pollen Sense utilizes artificial intelligence to categorize particles by shape, color, and size.

“We can learn things like how hot a fire is, what it is burning, and what is dirt or dust and what is ash,” said Landon Bunderson, Ph.D., aerobiologist at Pollen Sense. “Hopefully, down the road we can utilize the big data we generate with our network to better understand, analyze and predict how wildfires, and other sources of air pollution, can impact our short and long-term health.”

In addition to the particulates, wildfires give off a variety of gases such as carbon monoxide, which results from the incomplete burning of wood or other matters. These also contribute to air quality issues. Vaporsens, another USTAR-supported company, can monitor these gases and others in real time. Currently, the company is working with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality to study these toxins and their effects in Davis County.

“Vaporsens real-time chemical sensors can provide critical information about the short and long-term impact of fires on levels of critical air toxins, such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde,” said Angela Mitcham, director of business development for Vaporsens. “When there is a fire, how does it impact concentrations? How long is the residual effect? What is a safe perimeter? Those are currently unknowns.”

Understanding these effects better will enable policy makers and business leaders to make more informed decisions and take conscious efforts to address air quality, both in the wildfire season and beyond.

“Right now, there is no easy solution for our air quality issues,” said Hansen. “However, we can work to use new technologies to collect data that enables us to make more informed decisions to mitigate those issues going forward. Identifying ways to operate more efficiently and effectively will be a long-term economic win.”

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