Measure Air Pollution With Your Smartphone

Yes, you read that correctly. Researchers from the Netherlands are developing the iSPEX project which aims to allow citizens to monitor the particles in the air around them using their own smartphones.

In an post written by Elise Hendriks, one of the people working on the project, written on the International Year of Light‘s blog, it is described how a simple add-on to a regular smartphone can turn your device into a spectropolarimeter which can measure the aerosols in the atmosphere around you.

Building on technology originally designed for the observation of the atmospheres of other planets, an app on the phone instructs the user to scan the sky whilst photographs are taken through the add-on. The photos are able to record spectra and information on the polarisation of the sunlight scattered by particles in the atmosphere. The data collected gives the researchers information on the amount of aerosol, particle size, size distribution and chemical composition.

The technology is truly remarkable, and allows for thousands of data sets to be collected around the world, which will give more information on atmospheric pollution than has ever been accessible before. What is really exciting about the work, however, is that allows members of the public to not only learn more about atmospheric science but also to make a worthwhile contribution to the research themselves.

The research team are calling this citizen science. They have already carried out a successful experiment using thousands of citizens from the Netherlands, and are currently planning a Europe-wide experiment at major cities around the continent during September and October this year.

Elise and her team have managed to utilise really quite advanced technology and make it accessible to a member of the public, allowing them to have an impact on real, on-going scientific research without needing to be an expert in the area or on the technology being used. It’s an ideal way to engage the public with atmospheric chemistry and teach them about the way light can be used to measure the world around us.

What a perfect project to be going on during the International Year of Light!

You can find out more about the project here, and you can find out general information about the International Year of Light here.


Could biodiesel production finally become completely renewable?

As the world’s oil resources continually dwindle, the need for more renewable sources of fuels is apparent to all. What isn’t always obvious to the general public, however, is that we also need to look for renewable and sustainable sources of the basic chemicals used to manufacture not only these fuels, but all the of the fine chemicals in production today.

This article on the Chemistry World website describes a new chemical reaction which converts the waste glycerol from making biodiesel into methanol – one of the starting materials required to synthesise biodiesel in the first place. In the production of biodiesel, naturally-sourced oils are broken down via transesterification of methanol into glycerol, which then requires refining.

Researchers at the University of Cardiff found that, using magnesium oxide, they were able to reduce the glycerol back to methanol, effectively “closing the sustainability loop” on this process. The work is still in its very early stages, being published in Nature Chemistry only today, but it’s a very exciting and unexpected development in this area, and could really set the stage for a truly renewable process for the production of a biofuel.

Methanol isn’t only used for the production of fuels, and there’s the possibility that this process, or one similar, could lead to the production of other highly sought after chemicals being made more sustainable in the future. There is still a lot of development left to do on this reaction, but it is certainly intriguing, and worth keeping an eye on!


What is your country’s CO2 debt?

Today I came across an interesting article on the New Scientist website which outlines some recent research which reports the CO2 emissions of each country as ‘social debt’. Indeed, research from the Concordia University, Canada, ranks each country by the amount of over-pollution they carry out, by calculating that each tonne of carbon dioxide produced has a social debt of $40, as suggested by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The research ranks the UK well below that of Australia and the US, racking up $4000 of debt between 1990 and 2013 compared to more than $12000.

It’s certainly an interesting way to compare countries, with some such as China actually being considered to be ‘in credit’ using this system. However, this may be misleading, as in recent years China have begun to produce more CO2 for its population than the global average. It seems that as time passes by, China’s credit will soon be swallowed by its recent boom in CO2 production.

Hopefully, metrics such as this will allow for a critical review of which countries are contributing the most to climate change, not only right now but since the issue became such a big talking point. It’s often difficult to pinpoint who is the most responsible for such global problems, and so choosing the right action to be taken by whom becomes a major issue. Perhaps, studies such as these will allow the world to see which countries should be held to account for their pollution, and be responsible for making amends.

Climate change continues to be a huge issue for all scientists, and deciding who is worsening the issue the most may help us to tackle the problem. We can highlight who is polluting the Earth the most and why, and hopefully then be able to really work on solutions for the future.


Lego of the Chemistry World – The Story of Nano Machinery

Nanoscience has been an up and coming area of research for quite some time, and research groups have been developing various components which they hope to combine to make molecular machines. This article on the Nature News website describes how this area is finally coming of age, and the machine parts are being put into action.

It’s a very complicated area of chemistry, with molecules having to be precisely designed so that they can work together to produce a macroscopic effect. The simplest, and possibly most effective, applications will involve using these machines as switches for such important applications as drug delivery. Many of these switches have been developed over the years, many of which build on the axle-ring design of the rotaxane, first developed by Fraser Stoddart in the early 90s.

Research has continued to develop since then, with molecular motors and even molecules which are able to walk being synthesised. The sky appears to be the limit, and now chemists are on the cusp of proving to the world that these nano-machines can and will be useful.