Augmenting air quality studies with low-cost microsensors

By Lucas Neil, Project Manager, Atmospheric Sciences

4 min read

One of the most concerning aspects of air pollution is that it is not always visible. Visible or not, the health impacts of air pollution are wide-ranging, including asthma, lung damage and chronic respiratory disease. As such, air quality is a serious concern and a major public healthcare issue.

Advantages of low-cost air quality sensors

Advancements in low-cost air quality sensor technology combined with remote sensing and traditional monitoring methods give us new ways to capture and communicate air quality information. Using the latest microsensing technology, low-cost sensors allow for a breadth and density of monitoring not previously economically feasible. They can be equipped with sensors to monitor numerous pollutants - from particulate matter to VOCs to hydrogen sulfide, total reduced sulfur and mercaptans - depending on the scope of the investigation.

Microsensors can be used for compliance purposes, studying exposure, supporting air quality management, and developing policies for reducing and controlling emissions. Low-cost sensors also provide researchers with the ability to measure and quantify atmospheric chemistry on short spatial and temporal scales, providing new understandings and insight into how air pollution develops and evolves.

Identifying city hotspots

An exciting application of these microsensors is identifying and managing pollution ‘hotspots’ in cities. Background air quality measurements can now be easily taken across a much wider range of locations. Although legal compliance with provincial or federal air quality standards requires the use of US EPA approved methods, standard regulatory monitoring networks can be easily augmented with low-cost sensors. This provides municipalities (and other governing bodies) with valuable information about air quality on the hyper-local spatial scale.

Recently, we partnered with the City of Kitchener and Wilfrid Laurier University to set up air quality monitoring systems at Kitchener public schools to collect real-time data. The goal of the project is to understand how air pollution near schools varies between slower summer months and the busier school year when parents drive children to school and drop them off. Idling cars and buses emit pollutants, and the study will be able to assess the impact on air pollution in and around the schools.

The monitors will be set to detect key pollutants that adversely affect health (such as PM2.5, NO2 and low-level ozone). If the data shows an increase in pollutants during pickup and drop-off times, it could be used to encourage parents to either invest in electric vehicles or ditch their cars altogether in favour of walking or cycling to school with their children.

The City is also interested in looking at the collected CO2 data to better understanding emissions patterns in the city. This information will help inform their city-wide climate change action plans. The network of sensors will provide real-time air quality data that the community can easily visualize and interact with, helping the city work toward building a healthier community for all residents.

This project is funded in part by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Microsensors in action

To date, we have undertaken several projects with our clients using low-cost monitoring systems to help them track air pollution at construction projects and landfills, and have recently proposed their use at a major transportation terminal.

As noted, the benefits of low-cost sensors include the ability to increase the density of the monitoring locations and to be able to equip the sensors to monitor a wide variety of pollutants. There are a variety of sensor systems available on the market today. The key is to find a system that works for you and your project.

In summary, the benefits of using low-cost microsensors include:

  • Ability to set up large monitoring networks with dense grids, to gain localized and ‘big-picture’ air quality information (spatial scale/hyper-localized)
  • Reliable, real-time data for public health-related air quality advisories, city planning (e.g., transportation) and zoning matters (e.g., residential/industry separation)
  • Affordability – residents can conduct their own monitoring programs to provide peace of mind with regards to impacts from local industry
  • Ease of communication of air quality information with citizens, which increases engagement and understanding, while helping to promote healthier habits and a safer environment
  • Industrial facilities can use these monitors for indicative monitoring at their facility property line to help identify on-site operations that may be contributing to off-site complaints. This can help facilitate stakeholder engagement and complaint resolution.

How can we help?

We know each project is unique with different needs and requirements. Contact us to discuss how low-cost sensors can benefit your project.