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Don’t Chase the Wind

Posted on November 24th, 2014
Team LiDAR gets ready for action.

Team LiDAR gets ready for action.

There’s no way to say it delicately — livestock can smell pretty bad. IIHR Research Engineer Bill Eichinger and his team of student researchers are using LiDAR (laser radar) to quantify the effectiveness of bands of trees at filtering odor-carrying particulates from the air around livestock feeding operations. LiDAR makes it possible to study the plume of emissions, where it goes, and when.

Eichinger and his students (“Team LiDAR”) have traveled to Delaware twice since 2013 to participate in a research project led by researchers at University of Delaware. Just getting there was an adventure, says senior Brandon Willis. Team LiDAR transports personnel and equipment in a customized RV known affectionately as “The Whale.”

A Whale of a Time

“Driving across the country in that thing was interesting,” Willis says. “It was an exhilarating experience.” With steel meteorology towers and LiDARs strapped to the roof, the RV was a little bit top-heavy. Willis says driving through the mountains of Pennsylvania in the RV made him especially uneasy. Still, he loves the Whale. It’s like a student cave — think “man cave,” only gender neutral.

Willis says working with Eichinger has helped him develop into a researcher willing to seek out his own solutions. Willis remembers the first day he walked into Eichinger’s lab to find a lot of very expensive LiDAR equipment laid out. “[Professor Eichinger] just said, go ahead and play. If you have any questions, ask me,” Willis says. “There’s a lot of trust.”

After Team LiDAR arrived at the Delaware research site in the Whale, the team set up the LiDARs, as well as two meteorology towers equipped with various scientific instruments to measure wind speed and other variables. Then they settled down to wait for the wind to blow in the right direction.

If they tried to move the equipment to accommodate the wind, it would likely shift before they could get fully set up, Willis says. Years of experience has taught this valuable lesson — don’t chase the wind.

The Whale is more than just a mode of transportation for Team LiDAR — think man cave, only gender neutral.

The Whale is more than just a mode of transportation for Team LiDAR — think man cave, only gender neutral.

Blowin’ in the Wind

So, they wait. In 2013, the team spent two weeks in Delaware. At first, the wind didn’t cooperate. Students took advantage of the downtime to visit the beach, go fishing, and sample the local seafood. When the wind finally shifted, they got down to work gathering data.

With collaborators from the USDA and the other universities, the team uses LiDAR to track the particulates, which act as tracers for other components such as ammonia. The way plumes move is important because the emissions carry odors that are not only unpleasant, they also contain ammonia and other dangerous substances such as fecal matter.

LiDAR allows the team to record vertical slices in the atmosphere about three seconds apart. With that data, they can make movies that map the particulates’ movements in three dimensions. Collaborators also provide good data on particle size distribution, another key variable.

Willis explains that the idea behind the shelter belts is the assumption that the plumes stay close to the ground and pass through the shelter belts. And when averaged out over time, data suggest that this is in fact the case.

But there is plenty more work to do. The team hopes to learn what happens to the particles that are not filtered by the shelter belts. Are they staying closer to the ground? Are they particularly odoriferous and offensive to neighbors? If the trees were removed, would these particulates disperse vertically?

Willis, who plans to pursue a master’s degree after he graduates in 2015, hopes to continue working with Team LiDAR to answer these questions and more.

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