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Van Collects Gas-Emission Data

SDSU biology associate professor Chun-Ta Lai will begin to implement the change needed to stabilize and control San Diego's air quality.
This van drove around urban areas collecting greenhouse gas emissions in order to calculate carbon budgets of cities. Photo courtesy of SDSU associate biology professor Chun-Ta Lai
This van drove around urban areas collecting greenhouse gas emissions in order to calculate carbon budgets of cities. Photo courtesy of SDSU associate biology professor Chun-Ta Lai
Every day, the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere changes. These changes occur through the natural processes of the planet and from the ever-increasing emission of greenhouse gases from human sources, such as the burning of fossil fuels. The presence of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere creates a type of barrier that traps solar radiation, a process known as the greenhouse effect. As the greenhouse effect grows stronger, it produces a warming effect across the globe. Currently, the amount of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere is the highest it has ever been in human existence, and it is still rising.

According to the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2012” report, San Diego was nationally rated seventh for worst ozone pollution in a metropolitan area. The city is no stranger to greenhouse gas emissions and shows no significant improvement.

An ongoing research project by San Diego State biology associate professor Chun-Ta Lai will begin to implement the change needed to stabilize and control San Diego’s air quality.

Mobile data collection

The collaborative project, which includes Lai and two other faculty members from the University of California, Irvine and the University of Utah, seeks to create a mobile platform in order to collect data of greenhouse gas emissions in urban areas to calculate the carbon budget of each city. The team received approval and funding from the Department of Energy in San Diego.

“We ran into a lot of problems designing the power system because the van has a combustion engine which is a source of carbon emission,” Lai said. “We didn’t want to be measuring the emissions from the van, so we needed a clean energy source to power it. We had to come up with a power system to run the van when it is both stationary and on the move.”

Along with the power source, the lab was equipped with three gas analyzers to measure a variety of greenhouse gases, a GPS to mark the location of each reading and temperature and humidity sensors to help analyze the data. After initial testing in Utah, the mobile lab was sent to San Diego to begin data collection.

Traveling San Diego

For two weeks, the mobile lab traveled to and collected data in several locations in the San Diego area, such as downtown, the Miramar, Otay, and Santee landfills and the La Jolla Pier.

“We wanted to run the whole gauntlet between sources that are likely to emit greenhouses and areas where there were likely to be very little emissions, which is supposed to provide a baseline,” environmental science senior Jared Marsh said.

Marsh operated the van during the mobile labs stay in San Diego.

Using this data and isotopic carbon analysis, Lai will not only be able to measure the total emissions in an area, but also where and how the emissions come to be.

The collected data will be used to create a greenhouse gas emission baseline, which can be compared to environmental mitigations.

“When these mitigations become laws, we’re obligated to reduce greenhouse gases and need to have a means to evaluate our efforts,” Lai said. “Let’s say we decide to put in a lot of solar panels and more green energy inputs. Ten years from now, we can see how successful we have been with our mitigation.”

Now that the van has finished its work in San Diego, Lai plans to create a spatial representation of the data by overlaying points of high emissions on a San Diego city map, which has never been done before.

“There are many ecological consequences that are associated with human actions that tend to focus and promote our economic development,” Lai said. “There are many ecological consequences we don’t think about. As a result, the environment suffers from all these pollution problems.”

Through his research, Lai aims to implement new environmental laws and begin reducing San Diego’s contribution to the greenhouse effect.

This story originally appeared in the Daily Aztec.

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