Posted in | Pollution

Researcher Develops Novel Approach to Identify Sources of Particulate Matter and Improve Air Quality

The sources of particulate matter, which is a form of pollution, has not been completely understood to date. It is a highly complex mixture formed in the atmosphere from different gaseous precursor molecules.

The aim of Alexander Vogel, Professor for Atmospheric Environmental Analytics at Goethe University, is to identify their sources and enhance air quality. He was awarded the Adolf Messer Foundation Award for his research projects, at a ceremony held on November 26th, 2018. This year, the award amounts to €50,000 in honor of its 25th anniversary.

Congratulations to Alexander Vogel! He is doing research on an issue of global importance that affects us all, especially in metropolitan areas: particulate matter. His research can contribute to a better understanding of this threatening phenomenon and make the cities of the world healthier. We thank the Foundation for its tireless work on behalf of early career researchers at Goethe University. And we welcome the fact that the Foundation has addressed its historical responsibility in its recently published clarification on the role of its namesake Adolf Messer.

Birgitta Wolff, Professor, University President, Goethe University.

My warmest congratulations to Professor Alexander Vogel. His research is highly relevant—particulate matter threatens our health and is something we must understand and learn to combat. Excellent research, such as that done by Professor Vogel and many of his colleagues, requires excellent conditions. Now the government of the state of Hesse and the universities in Hesse have both signed the Higher Education Pact for the years 2016 to 2020, creating financial planning certainty for Hesse’s universities through 2020. The Higher Education Pact is a milestone for Hesse as a science location and guarantees Hesse’s universities € 9 million in financial resources for the next five years. That is the largest sum ever made available to Hesse’s universities.

Boris Rhein, Hessian Minister for Education, Culture and the Arts.

Every foundation should make it their job to support projects and ideas that are not adequately covered by basic government funding. This is the idea pursued by our non-profit foundation in its funding and recognition of scientists stand out due to their exceptional achievements. We are very happy that in 2018, innovation, scientific curiosity, and pioneering spirit have been recognized for the 25th time in this manner.

Stefan Messer, Chair, Adolf Messer Foundation Board.

About the award-winning project

The World Health Organization has predicted that globally, nearly 6.5 million people die prematurely as a result of air pollution, a majority of which can be attributed to particulate air pollution. In contrast to the widespread belief, a majority of the particulate matter does not reach the atmosphere straight from power plants or tailpipes; it is formed in the atmosphere itself from gaseous precursor molecules. This secondary particulate matter is formed of the smallest particles with an average diameter in the nanometer range. These particles can penetrate deep into the lung and even get into the blood through the alveolus. The oxidation of nitrogen oxides from diesel engines is an example of the formation of secondary particulate matter: the ensuing nitric acid molecules react with ammonia in the atmosphere to produce ammonium nitrate.

The inorganic precursor molecules and their transformation into secondary particulate matter have been analyzed well: sulfur dioxide from coal-burning power plants, nitrogen oxides from industry and traffic, and ammonia from agriculture. However, there are a number of other organic molecules that also exist in nature, for example, the terpenes emitted by spruce forests. The release of organic precursor molecules due to human activity with respect to the formation of secondary particulate matter is a highly topical research area. Until now, these precursor molecules and their interaction with inorganic trace gases have been analyzed only rudimentarily. The fact that the molecules usually have identical mass, even though their structures are different, has made it challenging to distinctly identify the products of these chemical reactions.

When Alexander Vogel was a postdoctoral fellow at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, he developed a technique for developing a molecular fingerprint from atmospheric particular matter samples. He can identify the secondary formation mechanism by analyzing them. The molecular fingerprint of particulate matter samples from Los Angeles, for instance, demonstrates a high percentage of nitrogen-containing organic molecules. “This allows the assumption that a reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions would also lead to a reduction of organic particulate air pollution in urban areas,” explained Vogel.

However, to explain the formation mechanisms of individual substances, it is necessary to further investigate atmospheric samples and particular laboratory experiments in which the formation of particulate matter is simulated. Comparison of field measurements with experiments would enable Alexander Vogel to already assign a portion of the signals in the real samples to specific processes and precursor molecules. Of the remaining unknowns, it would be possible to determine at least the molecular formula, so that prospective sources and formation mechanisms can be analyzed in further laboratory tests.

As a next step, Alexander Vogel will set up the experimental technique he developed at the Paul Scherrer Institute at Goethe University. Besides other things, he needs a machine for high-performance liquid chromatography, which can now be obtained with support from the Adolf Messer Foundation. Environmental science master degree students have been greatly intrigued by his research strategy. The measurements are slated to begin at the start of 2019. Applications for master’s and doctoral theses are already coming in.

The high relevance of this topic will also be reiterated in a symposium accompanying the award. Smog in Chinese cities, measurement of particulate matter at the Frankfurt International Airport, and the health effects of particulate matter will be discussed under the title “Understanding particulate matter: A grand challenge of the 21st century?”

Born in 1984, Alexander Vogel, studied chemistry at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. Upon receiving his PhD in the year 2014, research on the CLOUD experiment took him to the European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN by Geneva and the Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen, Switzerland. Since January 2018, he has been a tenure-track professor for atmospheric environmental analysis at Goethe University.

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