Polluted air…..why do we care ?

Delhi airport : A peek from the widow of the flight at around 9.30 in the morning

If you are an Indian researcher, you cannot escape a visit to Delhi. For the last few years, I have been visiting Delhi for various research related reasons: conference, grant meeting etc. A few days ago I had an opportunity to visit Delhi for a half-a-day meeting.

For me, Delhi embodies a rich feeling of delicious north Indian (street) food, extreme temperatures (by Indian standards), loud taxi music, an assorted flavor of Hindi dialects, and of course, national politics. Of late, Delhi also has gained a lot of attention in another matter: pollution. In winters, for several years now, smog (smoke + fog) has been a major problem, and has drastically perturbed the lives of Delhi citizens. This problem is not confined to Delhi. Various parts of India are not doing great either.

Anyway, as soon I landed in Delhi, it was foggy (see picture), and the visibility was poor. Clearly, there was something in the air, and it was not pleasant.  I wondered about all the kids who travel to school in such an air, and the possible effects on their health. There were several questions running through my mind:  Why is the polluted air the way it is ? How does one quantify pollution? What are the effective methods to detect pollution, and how can it be contained effectively? I knew some scientific aspects of air pollution, but I was curious about how at all air quality was measured and quantified. Below are some facts related to pollution and some interesting connection to light scattering.

There are several reasons for air pollution. In India, some of the major reasons include crop and biomass burning, emission from automobiles and industries, dust etc. There are mainly 8 kinds of pollutants: PM10, PM2.5, NO2, SO2, CO, O3, NH3, and Pb. A majority of the problems are caused by the so-called particulate matter. These tiny objects which can cause severe harm to human beings can be mainly classified as PM10 and PM2.5, where PM stands for particulate matter and the numbers 10 and 2.5 represents the size of such particles in microns. To give you a comparison, the width of our hair is approximately 100 microns in thickness. So imagine a particle which is thinner than your hair entering your respiratory system. This inhalation causes severe trouble to your lungs and the worst part is that it can cause irreversible damage to the inner walls of your respiratory tracts. Even more disturbing fact is that smaller the size of the particle deeper is the penetration in to our system, and greater harm it does to human well-being.

So, how to detect these small particulate matter? There are several ways to detect these tiny objects of which I found two methods to be interesting and effective.

First one is based on light scattering. Generally, the instrument used to monitor air quality using light scattering is called as nephlometer (In Greek nephos means cloud). This is a powerful and compact instrument that can continuously detect and monitor density of particulate matter. The measurement is based on Mie scattering (named after Gustav Mie, more about him in future), where the size of the scatterer is generally comparable to the wavelength of light. It assumes that the scattering particles are spherical in nature and isotropic in composition. It works on the basic principle that when you shine light through smog (at the ground level), the intensity of the scattered light carries characteristic signature of the size of the particle and its concentration. More specifically, the intensity of the scattered light depends on two important ratios. One is the ratio of particle size to wavelength of light and second is the ratio of refractive index of the particle to its surrounding medium. By calibrating the instrument for known particles and concentrations, the unknown size and concentration of the pollutant can be determined. (If you are interested to learn more, see this old research paper). As mentioned earlier, the measurement assumes the scatterer to be spherical and isotropic, which is not the usual case in the air. So corrections due to variation in shape and compositions have to be taken into consideration in this measurement. However, one of the major advantages of this measurement is that it is quick and portable, and hence a lot of air quality measurements are based on these instruments.

Alternatively, if one needs very accurate measurement of particle size, the instrument to use is Tapered Element oscillating microbalance (TEOM).  In this a tiny piece of tapered glass acts like a tuning fork. This tuning fork vibrates at a specific frequency which can be measured with reasonable accuracy. As one may guess, if something is moving, the speed of movement can be affected by adding weight on the moving object. In this case, the vibrating piece changes its frequency as soon as a small particle is in contact with it. The difference in the frequency is now related to the mass of the particle. Thus by using simple physics, one can obtain a powerful instrument to monitor air quality. Apart from the above-mentioned methods, there are various approaches to monitor air-pollution. Each of them have pros and cons, and are utilized depending on the situation.

Coming back to my Delhi trip, I finished my work, and headed towards the airport in a taxi. I casually asked the driver whether he was worried about the pollution in his city. He did mention that it was a concern, but after a brief pause he grinned and said – “odd-even phir sae shooru ho ra hain, business badega” (odd-even is starting gain, business will go up (note: odd-even was eventually stalled this time)). I grinned back at the driver, and remembered a quote of Charles Kettering : “The only difference between a problem and a solution is that people understand the solution”.