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Emerging Air Quality Mapping Tech Shows Promise for Industrial Cities

A local company won a hackathon in Richmond, Calif., by demonstrating the ability of mobile air quality sensors to give greater insight into local pollution.

by / November 3, 2015
A prototype air quality sensor, developed by Yamaha, hangs from the window of a car that Richmond, Calif., software company Simularity used to gather data around the city. Simularity

Richmond, Calif., is no stranger to air quality problems. When the Chevron oil refinery located in the east Bay Area city caught fire and spewed black plumes into the air in August 2012, 15,000 residents went to nearby hospitals for breathing problems, chest pain and headaches.

And yet the Chevron refinery is far from the only industrial gas emitter in Richmond. There’s also a rail-changing yard, chemical factories and a shipping port. The city has sensors connected with a siren system so that it can monitor air pollution from the oil refinery, but there isn’t as much information about what other pollutants Richmond residents are breathing in daily, where they come from or where they blow in the wind.

And that’s why a Richmond software company turned to an Internet of Things (IoT) technology currently gaining steam in the industry to find out more about the city’s air. The company, Simularity, just won a hackathon at the 2015 Meeting of the Minds for the project: Partnering with Yamaha, it attached a sensor to a car and drove around the city gathering air quality data on three different days, all at different times of day. The company then plugged the data into its mapping engine and created a map to find out where the highest concentrations of carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants were.

The move brings Simularity into a niche area of the IoT concept that’s begun buzzing with activity lately. Google announced in September that it had installed some air quality sensors on the street view cars roaming the Bay Area, central valley and Los Angeles. The Array of Things project in Chicago is planning on mapping air quality using stationary sensors that will also be able to measure traffic levels and perform other tasks, but is considering putting some of the devices on city buses as well. A researcher at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology has announced that he’s working on a nitrogen dioxide sensor that could be placed in smartphones.

So why the sudden interest in air quality mapping? One, it’s a public health issue. The World Health Organization puts the number of global deaths due to urban pollution at 2 million per year. Some people, like the elderly and those with existing respiratory problems, need to know when the air outside is polluted to avoid medical episodes.

But Liz Derr, Simularity’s CEO, sees a few more reasons for the increasing interest in air mapping using the IoT.

“I think it has to do with the technology,” she said. “This type of mobile sensor technology is just now becoming available, where we can connect these sensors wirelessly to the Internet where this kind of analysis can happen.”

It’s really the mobile technology that’s new. There are already government-run air quality sensor stations set up around the country, including in the Bay Area. But those stations are fixed in place, and Derr and others see an opportunity to add granularity to that data by introducing mobile sensors into the mix.

“Knowing what the air quality in your city is like is good,” Derr said. “But knowing what the air quality is like in your neighborhood is better.”

In the future, she said, information on air quality could be cross-checked with weather influences such as wind speed and direction. That would give cities the ability to track and predict the movement of polluted air.

Another reason Derr thinks interest in air quality mapping is increasing is because of a mounting push to limit carbon emissions worldwide. As national leaders from around the world prepare for the 21st Conference of Parties in Paris this December, the U.S. is implementing greenhouse gas reduction measures. California in particular has big aspirations; Gov. Jerry Brown signed a package of bills in September that included mandates for buildings to double their energy efficiency and for half the state’s electricity to come from renewables by 2050.

Because mobile air quality sensors have the power to deliver block-by-block pollution maps, Derr said the technology could help identify the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Case in point: When Simularity conducted its project, the highest concentrations of gas weren’t just near the Chevron oil refinery.

“We know the [Chevron] refinery is a problem, but as our sensors show, there’s a lot of other problems that other people aren’t even looking at because we just don’t have air quality monitoring there,” she said.

And there appears to be a robust government market for the technology, too.

“We were actually swamped at the conference with European and Asian [government representatives] that are desperate, really, for this technology and want to get it deployed,” she said. “I think that global warming is becoming more and more accepted, at least outside the United States, and people are really trying to do something about it.”

Ben Miller Associate Editor of GT Data and Business

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.

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