CU Boulder Atmospheric Scientists Create New Equipment to Determine Air Quality Emissions

Rainer Volkamer, PhD (left), CU Boulder Chemistry & CIRES principal investigator, gets an update from research assistant Natalie Kille (on ladder) with research associate Roman Sinreich, PhD (standing right). The research team has developed the first solar tracking equipment in the U.S. that can work in a mobile platform and analyze the makeup of chemicals in the atmosphere in the previously unchartered area extending from the earth to the sun.

Principal Investigator Rainer Volkamer, PhD (left), CU Boulder Chemistry Professor & CIRES Fellow, receives an update on the innovative solar tracking device protruding from the roof of the customized NCAR research trailer from researchers Natalie Kille (on ladder) with Roman Sinreich, PhD (standing right). The Volkamer Research Group has developed the first mobile solar tracking instrument to analyze the regional makeup of chemicals in the rarely studied air extending from the Earth to the Sun.

APA’s Neshama Abraham reports on research in atmospheric science …

CIRES/NCAR/NOAA Research Team Fills Gap with Innovative Mobile Solar Tracking Device

“I found the sun!” said research assistant Natalie Kille, age 25, who carefully watched the orange globe  representing the sun settle inside a black circle on the laptop computer perched on her lap inside a research van. “We can go now,” she announced to fellow atmospheric scientists Roman Sinreich, PhD, and Philip Handley.

The van  slowly moved forward pulling a specially-equipped research trailer containing a host of scientific equipment. Among the instruments is the first solar tracking equipment in the U.S. that can help analyze a vertical column of air emissions in a mobile vehicle.

The CU Boulder/CIRES team is part of the Volkamer Research Group in the Atmospheric Trace Molecule Spectroscopy Laboratory (ATMOSspeclab), and has developed an innovative technology to track regional air quality emissions which adds an important piece to the Front Range Air Pollution and Photochemistry Experiment aka FRAPPE.

“Our research fills a vital gap between the emissions that are measured at ground level or a few meters above ground, to the air sampling taken by airplanes collected at 300 to 500 meters high,” said Principal Investigator Rainer Volkamer, PhD, Associate Professor and CIRES Fellow in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We are collecting and analyzing the complex plumes that travel decoupled from the ground that are not often studied.”

Volkamer’s group is the first in the nation to build solar tracking equipment adapted for a mobile platform, and to track emissions in a vertical column from the ground all the way up to the sun. The team’s pioneering approach will give the scientific community access to the complexity of air aloft that can be quantified and presented in boxed areas on maps for an entire area or region. (Dr. Volkamer describes the MobileSoft instrument and the team’s research in the above 4-minute video interview).

The Air Pollution and Photochemistry Experiment project is funded by the Colorado Department for Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE), along with a seed grant from the CIRES Energy and Environment Initiative. Volkamer Research Group members include Jim Hannigan of NCAR, Owen Cooper of NOAA, and CU Chemistry/CIRES graduate students SunilBaidar and Ivan Ortega, and NASA scientists.

The team developed the innovative solar tracking software and equipment which contains motion sensors that adapt to the pitch and roll of a moving vehicle. Keeping the solar tracking system aligned with the sun while the trailer is moving and hitting bumps in the road is among the team’s greatest challenge. Last week, the researchers successfully refined the equipment to account for driving upon Colorado’s uneven road conditions. When Kille proclaimed she “found the sun” she meant the mirrors on the research trailer were properly aligned to track the sun’s position.

The solar tracking system is housed in a customized trailer lent by NCAR (see photo). The innovative equipment protrudes from the top of the research trailer where two mirrors are mounted on a rack to track the sun along with input from GPS and wind sensor devices.

Additional instruments in the trailer include a mobile Solar Occultation Flux Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer (FTIR), a direct sun Differential Optical Absorption Spectroscopy (DS-DOAS) and a Multi-Axis DOAS (MAX-DOAS). The FTIR tracks a large number of chemicals as they absorb the sun’s light to determine the makeup in a vertical column of air. The DS-DOAS measures along the direct solarbeam, and the MAX-DOAS measures scattered sunlight through a rotating telescope. The three pieces of equipment ensure a wide variety of chemical components found in the air are quantified under clear and partially cloudy skies.

Which chemicals are the team tracking? Ethane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and formaldehyde are the current FRAPPE priorities. Each emission has a unique chemical makeup that enables the research team to identify the source of the emission, whether from a natural or a human-produced activity.

“Ethane is the chemical signature of natural gas. Ammonia of cow feedlots. Carbon monoxide of cars,” Volkamer said. “Nitrogen dioxide is a precursor to ozone and formaldehyde is key to understand the rate at which hydrocarbons get oxidized in the atmosphere.”

Volkamer’s group has a vital role to play as their research fills a gap in the study of air quality emissions at a time where there is great interest in anthropogenic methane and ozone-producing volatile organic compounds. Boulder County, Weld County, and Larimer County along the Northern Front Range all exceed the Federal ozone standard of 75 parts per billion (ppb) that is considered “safe” for human exposure.

The researchers have been driving the research trailer in the field collecting air quality samples along the northern Front Range since July 2014. While the research being gathered will take months to fully interpret, the equipment has already produced its first set of data. The team will spend the next year analyzing the data.

Kille, who has a B.S. in meteorology and is working toward her PhD in atmospheric chemistry, joined the team in May.  “I wanted to be involved in field work,” she said. “It’s so important to understand the anthropogenic impacts on our atmosphere for the future of the climate.”

Additional information about the Volkamer Research Group and the ATMOS SpecLab can be found at

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Neshama Abraham is based in Boulder, Colorado, where she writes about atmospheric science research and discoveries that affect the climate and Earth.


Solar-powered Gondola in Colorado

Free gondola traveling between the town of Telluride and town of Mountain Village

APA client The ASTER Foundation supports sustainable transportation solutions …

Visiting Telluride, Colorado, the first thing you notice, besides the spectacular mountain view, is a free gondola. The gondola, traveling from the town of Telluride to the town of Mountain Village, is the first and only free public transportation of its kind in the United States. It was built to improve air quality in the region by keeping cars off the road.

“We created the free gondola for the right to build this town,” said Deanna Drew, director of plaza & environmental services at Mountain Village. With the condition to keep as many vehicles off the road as possible, Mountain Village was incorporated in 1995 to join 20 towns in San Miguel County and has become one of the world’s top resort destinations.

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Homesharing hits the mainstream

The New York Times interviews APA client about new housing trend …

Marianne Kilkenny, found the answer to her housing dilemma while reading Joan Medlicott’s novel “The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love” during a visit to Asheville, N.C. When Marianne Kilkenny was in her mid-50s, she decided she’d had enough of living and working in Silicon Valley but was not sure what to do next.

Ms. Kilkenny, now 64, moved to Asheville a year later with a plan to create communities like the fictional one that had captured her attention: three women in their 60s living together in a farmhouse in North Carolina. Today, not only has she succeeded in living that very life, she is also determined to help other women (and men) arrange shared housing as they grow older, while avoiding some of the potential downsides of such a move.

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Edible Gardens Arrive at the Ballpark

AT&T Park in San Francisco brought up the bar for ballpark food years ago when they introduced treats like made-to-order strawberry short cake carts, fresh Dungeness crab sandwiches, Peet’s Coffee and California wine.

Ballparks throughout the country followed suit, touting locavore fare. And now, AT&T Park is helping lead the way on a new trend: edible gardens at baseball games.

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Texas Utility to Be Coal-Free By 2016

Texas_PVWith a robust solar energy and natural gas portfolio, El Paso Electric expects to wean itself from coal in 2 years, providing cleaner power to its 395,000 residential and commercial customers in Texas. By the end of the year, solar energy will represent 6 percent of EPE’s generation sources, compared to 0.23 percent nationally.

EPE signed a 20-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with the Macho Springs solar plant in New Mexico, on 500-acres of State Trust Land in Luna County. The 50 megawatt project supplies enough power for 18,000 homes and will displace more than 40,000 metric tons of CO2. Macho Springs was touted as a super cost-effective solar energy development, at a mere 5.79 cents per kilowatt-hour, and will be the largest in New Mexico. This is significant because the project is selling solar energy for about half of what is typical for such a project and for nearly the price of coal power — but with a 20-year purchase agreement.

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Acheving 100-percent renewable electricity

spreadoftownsIllinois has 91 communities that have achieved 100-percent renewable energy, according to “Leading from the Middle: How Illinois Communities Unleashed Renewable Energy,” a report released Friday by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, LEAN Energy US, the Illinois Solar Energy Association and George Washington University Solar Institute. Each of the communities used group buying power to purchase electricity with renewable energy credits.

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