Editorial Feature

Quantifying Pollutants: Elemental Analysis Methods for Cleaner Air

As the world confronts critical air quality challenges, elemental analysis stands at the forefront of the fight against air pollution.

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This article explores a significant study conducted in Slovakia's Považský Chlmec tunnel, shedding light on the role of elemental analysis in particulate matter (PM) monitoring while focusing on its practical uses and advantages for air pollution control.

What Does Elemental Analysis Reveal About Air Pollution Sources?

Elemental analysis, particularly using energy-dispersive X-ray fluorescence (EDXRF), plays a crucial role in identifying the sources of particulate matter (PM) in air pollution. A detailed study in the Považský Chlmec tunnel in Slovakia exemplifies this, uncovering a complex array of PM sources, predominantly stemming from road traffic, including both exhaust and non-exhaust emissions.1

The study's findings were compelling, revealing that the average concentrations of PM10 and PM2.5 inside the tunnel were significantly higher than those near the tunnel portal—specifically, 53 % and 44 % higher, respectively. This data underscores the substantial contribution of road traffic to local air pollution levels.

Through EDXRF, a range of chemical elements were identified in the PM, including Al, Br, Ca, Cl, Cr, Cu, Fe, K, Mg, Mn, Na, P, Si, S, Ti, and Zn. The use of factor analysis (FA) and principal component analysis (PCA) revealed two primary sources for PM10 and three for PM2.5. Significant contributors include brake and tire wear, road wear, re-suspension, and exhaust emissions.1

How Is Elemental Analysis Being Utilized in Air Quality Management?

Building on the revelations from the Považský Chlmec tunnel study, which utilized EDXRF to pinpoint pollution sources in Slovakia, a similar approach in air quality management has been adopted in other regions.

In Delhi, India, a study expanded on these methodologies using Wavelength Dispersive X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometer (WDXRF) to analyze fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

This technique, offering higher resolution and sensitivity compared to EDXRF, identified a variety of elements (such as S, Cl, K, Ca, and Fe) and traced back their origins to sources like crustal/soil/road dust, vehicular emissions, and industrial activities.2

The use of WDXRF in Delhi's air quality study complements the EDXRF findings from the Slovakian tunnel, highlighting the versatility and effectiveness of elemental analysis in environmental monitoring. Together, these studies underscore the importance of understanding the elemental composition of air pollutants to formulate targeted air quality management strategies.

Scaling Elemental Analysis for Worldwide Air Pollution Control

The global expansion of elemental analysis for air pollution control is evident through innovative projects like NASA's Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO). Launched April 7, 2023, TEMPO is a grating spectrometer designed to attach to a geostationary satellite, enabling continuous monitoring of North America's atmospheric chemistry.

TEMPO will provide detailed spectra of ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), aerosols, and other pollutants, offering insights into hourly and daily variations in air pollution at a sub-urban scale.3

This satellite-based approach exemplifies the scaling of elemental analysis on a continental level, enabling precise monitoring of air quality trends and the impact of various pollution sources. These advancements enhance the understanding of air quality issues for policymakers, and researchers, enabling more effective solutions.

Other global initiatives are leveraging similar technologies, such as the European Commission's (EC) and the European Space Agency's (ESA) Copernicus program. The ESA Copernicus program employs a collection of satellites, with Sentinal-4 and 5 using Ultraviolet Visible Near-infrared (UVN) spectrometers to monitor air quality, providing critical data for environmental policy and health research.4

Innovative Mitigation Strategies for Air Pollution Control

To combat air pollution effectively, a variety of innovative mitigation strategies are being implemented globally. Transitioning to renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, is pivotal in reducing emissions from power generation.

In urban transportation, electric vehicles (EVs) and enhanced public transit systems aim to lower vehicular pollutants significantly. Cities are also increasingly adopting 'low emission zones' and promoting cycling and walking to reduce traffic-related emissions.

In the industrial sector, the installation of pollution control technologies, such as scrubbers and filters, in factories is vital in curbing industrial emissions. Urban planning that emphasizes green spaces contributes to natural air purification, while policies mandating emission reductions guide industries toward environmentally friendly practices.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are also gaining attention for their potential to trap carbon dioxide emissions from industrial sources, preventing their release into the atmosphere. These comprehensive strategies, underpinned by robust policies and public awareness, are crucial in the global effort to improve air quality and environmental health.

Future Developments in Elemental Analysis for Air Pollution Control

The horizon for elemental analysis in air pollution control is marked by promising advancements and deeper research insights. Following the pioneering study in Slovakia's Považský Chlmec tunnel, further exploration into the detailed properties and sources of particulate matter is anticipated.

Upcoming technologies in elemental analysis are poised to offer more accurate and extensive monitoring tools. Projects like TEMPO, with advanced sensors and spectrometers, will deliver richer data on atmospheric pollutants. Integrating these innovations into global networks, such as the ESA Copernicus program, promises a more refined grasp of air pollution trends worldwide.

Looking ahead, advancements in elemental analysis are poised to significantly enhance air quality management, making a crucial contribution to a healthier and more sustainable global environment.

See More: Elemental Analysis Used to Detect Environmental Contamination

References and Further Reading

Jandacka, D., Durcanska, D., Cibula, R. (2022). Concentration and Inorganic Elemental Analysis of Particulate Matter in a Road Tunnel Environment (žIlina, Slovakia): Contribution of Non-exhaust Sources. Frontiers in Environmental Science. doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2022.952577.

Sharma, SK., Mandal, TK. (2023) Elemental Composition and Sources of Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) in Delhi, India. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. doi.org/10.1007/s00128-023-03707-7.

Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (2023). TEMPO Instrument. [Online] Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution. Available at: https://tempo.si.edu/instrument.html (Accessed on December 11 2023).

The European Space Agency (2023). Sentinel-4 Set to Join Next Weather Satellite. [Online] The European Space Agency. Available at: https://www.esa.int/Applications/Observing_the_Earth/Copernicus/Sentinel-4_set_to_join_next_weather_satellite (Accessed on December 11 2023).

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Rachael Jones

Written by

Rachael Jones

Rachael Jones, a freelance writer with an MSc in Earth Science and a PGDip in Environmental Management, merges her extensive academic background with years of publishing and editing experience. Focused on digital marketing within the science and technology sectors, Rachael excels in creating compelling narratives that connect intricate scientific ideas with a wider online audience.


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