Breathless: Time for big business to clear the air

Oct. 17, 2023
Despite research repeatedly highlighting the health risks of air pollution, action to reduce it has not kept up—but the scientific community can help change that.

World Health Organization data shows almost everyone in the world is regularly exposed to unclean air, most of which is a result of transport, industry, and other sources of fossil fuels being burned. Every day, vast quantities of harmful chemicals and particulate matter are released into the atmosphere, polluting the environment and contributing to a public health crisis.

Those contributing to this pollution have a duty to address it. But if action is to be effective, we first need to understand the true extent of the problem. Too often, the scale of emissions is unknown; from faulty oil and gas infrastructure leaking methane to unreported venting and flaring, there are clear gaps in the data required to target measures against areas of priority.

However, with this problem comes potential; specifically, with advances in emissions monitoring technology, it will be possible to close the data gap and facilitate decisive action on air pollution. The scientific community is well positioned to develop solutions that make emissions tracking cheaper, simpler, and more reliable, which will help companies meet ever more stringent regulations.

Through collaboration, there is a unique opportunity to act now to avert a looming crisis. Collecting data—making the invisible visible—will be key.

The glue that ties commitment to results

To catalyze action for clean air, we must reform how we think about accountability for air pollution and health. To achieve this, tracking the most damaging but best-understood pollutants—tiny particles of black carbon, nitrates, sulfates, ammonia, or mineral dust—is non-negotiable.

The manufacturing industry accounts for almost a quarter of carbon emissions globally. According to the latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the sector must change its ways or bear responsibility for contributing to catastrophic climate change.

Across the globe, environmental regulatory authorities require manufacturing industries to monitor their pollutant emission rates. The most common means of doing so is with continuous emissions monitoring systems, which are employed for collecting data on emission levels of gases from various industries, including power generation, oil & gas, chemicals, and waste incineration. As regulations regarding pollution monitoring across industries increase, demand for these systems will only rise further.

Accurate, reliable monitoring of industrial applications’ smoke, dust, and particulate emissions helps ensure safer and more efficient manufacturing and combustion processes, which helps maintain ambient air quality standards that comply with environmental regulations. The sensing technology required to achieve this is not some far-off concept—it is available today and is more affordable and accessible than ever. Any company can monitor its industrial gas usage and emissions, providing researchers with a valuable understanding of humanity’s actions’ true impact on our planet.

Where it all begins

Laser absorption spectroscopy is a powerful tool for detecting trace gases and will be key in tackling the “low hanging fruit”—the emissions that have the biggest impact on climate change, like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4).

Emitters within these sensors generate beams of IR light that pass through a sampling chamber containing a filter. The filter blocks out certain wavelengths, meaning only the required wavelengths make it past the filter to reach a detector. This detector measures the IR light's intensity (or attenuation), which can determine the precise concentration of gas that may be present. Different filters allow different wavelengths of light to reach the detector, which, in turn, can be used to detect other gases and distinct particles.

Newer gas analyzer instruments use a laser diode mounted on a thermo-electric cooler to tune a laser's wavelength to the specific absorption wavelength of a particular molecule. They exploit their high-frequency resolution, which results in enhanced sensitivity—more significant levels of interaction between gas molecules and light in the order of parts per billion—and discrimination, as they are tuned to specific gas compounds.

Modern detectors can continuously monitor for combustible gases and vapors within the lower explosive limit and provide alarm indications. These can be deployed within oxygen-deficient or enriched areas, require little calibration, and are immune to sensor poison, contamination, or corrosion.

Infrared sensors enable a fail-safe system for detecting leakages compared to other systems that cannot detect small gas concentrations reliably. Like other sensors, IR detectors provide fast response times and accurate results. However, while catalytic, semiconductor, and electrochemical sensors all require the target gas to be present in concentrations below the lower explosion limit, IR sensors can accurately measure gas concentrations of 0–100%.

Sensing demand

It is impossible to deal with a problem we cannot see clearly. By making the invisible threat of air pollution visible through accurate data, we can begin to mitigate and even eliminate harmful emissions from many industries. Developing and promoting this kind of technology must become an area of focus.

Air pollution measurement instruments serve multiple purposes. They can help neutralize immediate threats, like toxic gas leaks, to keep employees and the wider public safe. They can also protect businesses legally by assisting them to comply with ever-evolving, increasingly complex environmental legislation.

Most importantly, though, these advanced instruments can be a powerful tool for change that can shape public perceptions and behaviors around air pollution. By releasing detailed information that can be used to inform the public through warnings, emergency alerts, and general education, it is possible to inspire billions of people worldwide into firmer action.

At Umicore, we assist in driving advances to open new opportunities and allow end users to use their devices in ways they haven't considered before.

By embracing data and taking precise, informed action, industries, legislators, and consumers can all work together to help break the feedback loop of emissions driving further emissions.

About the Author

Mark Naples | General Manager, Umicore Coating Services

Mark Naples is the general manager for Umicore Coating Services (Dundee, U.K.).

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