London skyline with air pollution

A new network of advanced air quality monitoring instruments will detect harmful air pollutants and their sources in greater detail than ever before.

Three urban air pollution research laboratories, or supersites, are expected to be operational in Birmingham, London, and Manchester by the end of 2018.

The new equipment, installed at existing research sites, will allow researchers to gather higher-quality data on the content of harmful urban air pollution and where the gases and particles that pollute our air are coming from. The University of Birmingham has an internationally leading track record in researching urban air quality and the impacts of air pollution upon human health, carrying out air pollution research projects in locations as diverse as Beijing, Delhi and Nairobi, alongside work across the UK.

Professor William Bloss said: “The new monitoring equipment will allow us to go beyond routine monitoring, and quantify specific sources of air pollutants here in Birmingham – for example, to distinguish between traffic exhaust emissions, and those from brake and tyre wear. These insights will better inform the general public, and will support local authorities in refining their clean air strategies.”

The supersites will include a range of advanced instruments (that detect the individual chemicals contained inside atmospheric particles) to measure the size and physical properties of particles, and identify volatile organic chemicals, nitrogen and sulphur oxides and greenhouse gases. In addition, detailed meteorological information will be collected along with new measurements of vehicle emissions under real-world conditions. All the data generated will be open-access and for most measurements, be available to the public via a website in real-time.

Funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the £4.3 million investment will see eight universities led by the NERC Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) set up and run the new equipment.

On top of NERC’s funding through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for Transport (DfT) has funded £600,000 for new training and research posts to work on the enhanced air pollution monitoring sites and vehicle emission testing equipment.

Science and Research Minister, Sam Gyimah, said: “The establishment of the air pollution research supersites highlights our commitment to improving air quality, enhancing our public health as well as tackling the growing threat of climate change to our environment.

“We have put research and development at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy by increasing R&D funding by £2.3 billion to 2022 and these enhanced laboratories, spread across the country, will showcase our world class scientific expertise in developing solutions to global challenges.”

Climate Change Minister, Claire Perry, said: “The UK is a world leader in tackling climate change, and monitoring our greenhouse gas emissions underpins the government’s commitment to the Climate Change Act and the Paris Agreement. Our Clean Growth Strategy sets out how we plan to reduce emissions through the 2020s, and further research into tackling air pollution will not only improve our health, it will help us meet our climate change targets.”

Science co-ordinator for the investment, Professor Alastair Lewis of NCAS, said:
“Air pollution in cities doesn’t just come from the exhaust fumes from cars, lorries and other vehicles. It also comes from our homes, cooking, industry and commerce, generating energy and other sources. We still don’t know exactly which sources release the nitrogen dioxide and particles we find in our city centres. Improving air quality in UK cities is a national priority and challenging targets for cutting emissions are in place over the next decade. It is vital to strengthen the scientific evidence needed to design solutions that will be successful in cleaning up our air.”

He added: “This new research infrastructure will complement the programmes of air quality and emission measurements being made across government, by Defra, the Department for Transport and BEIS. Combining new data from the UK’s leading research institutions in air pollution with the data from Government will create a very powerful and insightful evidence base.”

For more information or a copy of the full paper please contact Luke Harrison, Media Relations Manager, University of Birmingham on +44 (0)121 414 2772.

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NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is a non-departmental public body. We receive around £330 million of annual funding from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.