Mobile research laboratories will keep track of UK air pollution

Air pollution from factories
Industrial air pollution

New mobile air quality research laboratories will help experts further develop the UK’s world leading position in analysing how air pollution is formed and what impact it has on our environment and people.

Scientists at the Universities of Birmingham, Manchester, Cranfield and Coventry, Imperial College London and Aston University have secured NERC funding for two ‘supersite observatories’ –fixed in an electric van and a trailer – that will dovetail with existing fixed air quality supersites in Birmingham, London and Manchester.

Urban Air Quality Supersites already allow researchers to gather detailed data on the contents of harmful urban air pollution; working out where the gases and particles that pollute our air are coming from and how they form in the air - adding observational capacity far beyond the routine DEFRA and local authority air quality monitoring.

Poor air quality arises from the interaction of emissions, weather and atmospheric processes, affecting the amounts and toxicity of pollutants.

As part of the drive to improve regional and national air quality, the mobile supersites will help scientists better understand the balance between traffic and urban emissions, and pollutants already present in the air and carried on the wind into urban areas.

They will also help to define how chemical processing agricultural emissions and changes to move towards carbon-zero transport affect air quality.

Zongbo Shi, Professor of Atmospheric Biogeochemistry at the University of Birmingham, commented: “Air pollution is the biggest environmental risk in the UK, leading to significant health inequalities and costing the country’s economy some £20 billion every year.

“Adding mobile ‘supersite observatories’ to the monitoring capacity provided by our fixed sites will take our capability for quantifying air pollution sources and processes to the next level and consolidating Britain’s world-leading position in this field.

“This exciting development will produce policy-relevant science with significant impact - informing air quality policy and helping to account for imported emissions. This is a UK-based approach with potential for global impact.”

Backed by £1.3 million of NERC funding, the new supersites are not traditional monitoring stations - they will comprise highly sophisticated instruments which monitor key species in atmospheric processes, including:

  • Trace metals, nanoparticles and particle composition, plus regulated gas pollutants.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – key to ozone, secondary organic aerosol and new particle formation; and
  • Ammonia - key to aerosol formation.

The mobile units will help to create the UK Air Quality Supersite Triplet (UK-AQST) configuration - rural, urban and roadside. This will allow urban and roadside concentration increments to be measured, as well as processing polluted air to analyse key secondary pollutants such as nitrates, organic particles and nanoparticles in unprecedented detail.

Forthcoming revision of World Health Organisation guidelines will inform revised national air quality targets, within the new Environment Bill.

UK-AQST will directly benefit the UK's atmospheric and environmental health community with six institutions involved.

Notes to editors:

  • For more information, interviews or an embargoed copy of the research paper, please contact Tony Moran, International Communications Manager, University of Birmingham on +44 (0)782 783 2312. For out-of-hours enquiries, please call +44 (0) 7789 921 165.
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
  • 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.