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UCC Researcher leads €3.2M air quality project

5 Nov 2020

A University College Cork-led research project has received €3.2m in European funding to develop a more cost effective way to measure air pollution.

It is hoped that the research team, drawn from industry and academia and coordinated by UCC, will bring about the creation of low cost electrical sensors for detecting harmful particles in the atmosphere, and that these devices can be subsequently deployed on airplanes, ships and other platforms to monitor air quality.

The team is led by Professor Justin Holmes at University College Cork and comprises partners from academia and industry across five different European countries.

They have been awarded €3.2m in funding for the ‘RADICAL’ Project from the European Union’s research and innovation programme in the hope that their research can overcome some of the challenges associated with measuring air pollution, a lead factor in the cause of over 400,000 premature deaths across the European Union each year.

Only the second of its kind to be coordinated from Ireland, the team has plans to design and build high tech low cost instruments that will measure the presence of harmful atmospheric radicals in the air.

“Radicals are reactive species that drive chemical processes in the atmosphere, influencing climate change, the formation of acid rain and driving the production of photochemical smogs, all detrimental to human health and the environment,” said Professor Justin Holmes. 

Driven by a chemical process that can influence air quality, atmospheric free radicals affect the health of humans, animals and plants in both indoor and outdoor settings.

Despite their significant impact, detecting and measuring harmful radicals such as hydroxyl and nitrate remains technically complex, cumbersome and expensive.

As a result, there are only a small number of research groups capable of performing such tests in a limited number of locations around the globe.

However, Professor Justin Holmes and his team plan to overcome many of these obstacles by developing new methods of detecting harmful radicals.

“Current techniques for measuring radicals, using complex and expensive equipment, are far-from-routine and only a select few research groups can perform them. The aim of our project is to develop a new and cheap technology for measuring radicals in the atmosphere that can be easily implemented and deployed worldwide. We are working with Industry partners to lead the development of highly accurate, mass-produced sensors that could supply real-time data on the distribution and transmission of free radicals in the atmosphere,” said Dr Subhajit Biswas, a UCC researcher on the project.

Professor John Wenger, Director for the Centre of Research on Atmospheric Chemistry at UCC and a partner on the project, believes that the technology goes far beyond the state-of-the-art, and could be deployed at all of the world’s operational air quality and meteorological stations, significantly enhancing scientists’ ability to monitor and control air quality, allowing for more accurate climate predictions and a better quality of life for citizens.

“The project will develop low cost electrical sensors for detecting atmospheric radicals that could be deployed on a multitude of mobile platforms, such as planes, ships, balloons, drones, to address specific environmental questions.  This new technology has the potential to revolutionise the whole field of environmental monitoring and atmospheric science and could possibly be extended into other areas, such as electronic health for monitoring chemistry in the human body,” said Professor John Wenger.

The scale and the ambition of the project immediately struck Dr Magdalena Tyndyk –Prime UCC Manager.

Designed to assist UCC researchers and strategic external clients to make successful applications for European or national funding, Prime UCC worked with Professor Holmes and his team to develop the proposal that ultimately secured EU funding.

“I met Prof Holmes and Dr Biswas, while working on another UCC H2020 application. When I saw the idea and science behind RADICAL, I knew it was a breakthrough proposal. During the application stage, PrimeUCC provided the expertise and guidance on how to make the difference between a great idea for research funding and a successfully funded research grant. PrimeUCC helped to strengthen the real impact of the project by merging scientific excellence with professional communication and management,” said Dr Magdalena Tyndyk.

After successfully securing Horizon 2020 funding, the focus of the multidisciplinary research team has turned to developing and manufacturing the technology required to measure harmful radicals with the help of some of Europe’s leading tech SMEs.

The RADICAL website can be visited HERE.

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