As poor air quality threatens human and environmental health across the world, research at Cambridge is giving regulators and local communities new tools to tackle pollution. By developing better, cheaper air sensors, their work is paving the way for a major expansion of air quality monitoring networks.

Alphasense would not have been able to dominate this emerging market without the collaboration and support from Rod Jones

Atmospheric Chemistry group Alphasense

Because the sensors were cheaper, and the data could be overlaid onto Google maps, they showed for the first time the unprecedented detail that a high-density monitoring network could deliver

Global impact

By adapting and improving existing industrial sensors, Cambridge researchers are paving the way for a larger, more cost effective air quality monitoring network in the UK and beyond. As well as enabling UK businesses to expand, its research will help improve air quality across the country.

Working closely with a local gas sensor manufacturer, Alphasense, Professor Roderic Jones of the Centre for Atmospheric Science (CAS) is improving how low cost sensors can be used to measure air quality accurately. Geotech, a UK  firm specialising in environmental monitoring equipment, is partnering with Jones’s team to commercialise these sensors, with the first product – AQMesh – launched in the UK by distributor Air Monitors Ltd in early 2014.

The compact, battery-powered devices are ideal for siting on lamp-posts and other street furniture. The technology first developed and deployed at Heathrow Airport has been instrumental in what is now being rolled out across Europe through CITISense, a citizen science project to gather data and empower local communities.

Pollution problem

Improving air quality is a major challenge. Poor air quality damages public health, with knock-on costs for healthcare and the environment, where food production can suffer as a result. And the problem is global. According to the European Environment Agency, a significant proportion of Europeans live in cities where air quality standards are regularly breached. Outside Europe pollution problems can be more severe, particularly in megacities – places with populations of over 10 million – and in the developing world, here air quality standards are absent or unenforced.

Part of the challenge lies in our ability to monitor air quality. In the UK, air quality is monitored via the Automatic Urban and Rural Network (AURN). Comprising just 171 monitoring stations sited mostly in urban areas, AURN leaves large swathes of the UK unmonitored. So improving air quality requires more monitoring systems, which is only possible if we can make them more cheaply.

Smarter sensors

Research at CAS is opening up new possibilities for a low-cost, high-density air quality monitoring network in the UK.

Taking electrochemical sensors widely used to detect toxic gases for industrial safety, Jones and his team worked with Alphasense to improve their sensors to detect atmospheric pollutants such as carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen at very low concentrations.

Jones then headed out of the lab and into the streets. The team tested the new sensors in mobile, hand-held devices and  fitted them to lampposts and other street furniture. And adding a GPS receiver and GPRS transmitter allowed them to collect and store the data or send it in real time to a central computer for analysis.

Working with colleagues in Chemistry, Mathematics, the Computer Laboratory and the Cavendish, they  eld tested in Cambridge the wireless system built by Alphasense, installing 46 static sensors and using volunteers to carry mobile sensors as they walked, cycled or drove around the city.

Building on what they learned in Cambridge, the team collaborated with academics at other UK universities to monitor a wider range of pollutants from sulphur dioxide and hydrocarbons to ozone and particulates. They installed a network of 50 sensors at Heathrow airport, and at existing AURN stations to gather comparative data. Together, Jones’s studies showed these sensors could be highly sensitive and selective, detecting pollutants in real life settings as accurately as AURN. But because the sensors were cheaper, and the data could be overlaid onto Google maps, they showed for the first time the unprecedented detail that a high-density monitoring network could deliver.

Cleaner future

If the AQMesh monitors are certified to a level which would allow them to become components of the AURN, Cambridge research could be behind a huge expansion of air quality monitoring in the UK, and as Jones’ technology gains acceptance in Europe it could then form the basis of similar networks across the European Union and beyond. The technology could help medical researchers too, and in 2014 Jones began work on a £1m epidemiological study with health researchers at Cambridge and London using his mobile devices to look at links between air quality and respiratory disease.