AirU at the University of Utah

Our project

We are bringing low-cost, air quality sensors and teaching modules to high-school and middle-school classrooms along the Wasatch Front.  In partnership with teachers, environmental advocates and citizen-scientists, we are working to help understand and address the region’s air quality challenges as well as to evaluate the performance of these low-cost sensors. The project currently focuses on the Salt Lake Valley, which experiences periodic episodes of poor air quality and does not meet national ambient air quality standards.

We aim to:

  • engage the community to identify their most pressing air-quality research questions.  Help us by taking our survey.
  • improve our understanding of the geo-spatial and temporal differences in air quality,
  • work with students and citizen scientists to understand the accuracy, performance, and reliability of  low-cost, air-quality sensors, and
  • integrate our low-cost sensor package, “AirU” into the Department of Chemical Engineering’s regular visits to high-schools as part of their  outreach efforts.

If you have any questions regarding the sensor and its data please look at our FAQ Page

Background

The World Health Organization estimates that in 2012 approximately 3.7 million people died as a result of ambient air pollution. Among commonly monitored air pollutants, fine particulate matter (PM2.5), particles with diameters smaller than 2.5 microns, has the greatest adverse health effects. Elevated PM2.5 levels are a particularly important issue in northern Utah where PM2.5 levels can exceed national ambient air quality standards for periods ranging from a few days to weeks, particularly in the winter.  These episodes of poor air quality create significant health and quality-of-life consequences for the region’s citizens, including increased incidence of asthma, juvenile arthritis, and mortality.

Government agencies, such as the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ), and citizens rely on air-quality data from sparsely distributed monitoring stations for planning purposes and for communicating air quality. These stations are equipped with high-quality, costly instruments that meet federal monitoring requirements. However, sparsely distributed stations may not accurately represent the pollutant gradients within a city. In Salt Lake City differences in elevation, land use and other factors result in daily average PM2.5 concentrations at the neighborhood-level that may not be well represented by the nearest state monitoring station. In addition to sparse spatial distribution, the government monitoring stations have limited temporal resolution. For example, only two stations in Salt Lake County provide hourly PM2.5 levels. This gap in temporal resolution is particularly important in light of studies suggesting that even short-term increases in pollutant levels increase the incidence and severity of asthma and cardiac events.

Networks of low-cost, air-quality sensors can help bridge these spatial and temporal gaps and provide key information to air-quality managers, health-care providers, and the community at large to better understand air quality and minimize exposure risks. However, many of these low-cost sensors lack independently gathered calibration data, quality assurance procedures, or descriptions of when the sensors may provide inaccurate readings. Presenting unreliable or uncertain information from sensor networks can cause either unnecessary public concern or complacency about pollution levels and the associated health risks.

This project aims to help understand the region’s air quality challenges and low-cost sensor reliability  by engaging students and citizen scientists .

Our partners

Many thanks to our partners:

  • Breathe Utah is developing air-quality and low-cost sensor teaching modules to middle schools.
  • PurpleAir is a community air-quality network.  They have shared data to help us understand sensor reliability as well as helped us with soldering our legos tool kits.
  • The University of Utah’s Chemical Engineering Department‘s outreach team is bringing the teaching modules to local schools.
  • Interns from AMES who help us develop and test teaching modules.