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Air Quality is Essential

Posted on June 12th, 2020

by Margot Dick

Two photos next to each other both depict the Tall Tower

The tall tower is a TV tower on which NOAA rents space

Though the University of Iowa is largely quiet these days, IIHR Research Engineer Charles Stanier and his research group are hard at work on air-quality data analysis and monitoring.

Stanier, who is also a University of Iowa professor, has been classified as an essential worker during the COVID-19 pandemic for his work with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Stanier is a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the UI, and his research focus is on the atmosphere and greenhouse gasses. Stanier and his grad students manage one of the tall towers NOAA uses for greenhouse gas monitoring. The tower is in West Branch, Iowa, about 10 miles east of Iowa City.

The tall tower has tubes attached to it that collect air at different height intervals. The height of the tower ensures that the air sampled is not affected by individual farms or other local pollutants, and instead is a mixture representing the general greenhouse gas exchange between land and atmosphere for the state of Iowa and surrounding Midwest.

Stanier says the work he does at the tower requires only one person, collecting glass bottles filled with air and replacing them with new ones. Every two weeks, he packs up the bottles and sends them to Boulder, Colo., where they are emptied for testing, cleaned, and returned to him. Stanier says the continued work that he and managers at other U.S. tall tower locations are doing keeps the atmospheric pollutant concentration data up to date. Concentrations in the atmosphere are particularly important during times of atypical daily routines, such as the pandemic, that can then be compared to normal levels.

Charles Stanier takes a selfie in front of machinery

Stanier and his students have done several field campaigns around the U.S.

“Ultimately, people want to see how the emissions changed during the shutdown. We don’t measure emissions, we measure concentrations, but if somebody thinks they know how the emissions changed, they can check using the concentration measurements to see if it’s consistent,” Stanier says.

Stanier and his team of graduate students have several other jobs, including data analysis for the Lake Michigan Ozone Study done in Chicago in 2017. The data includes summertime pollution levels around Lake Michigan. Another of Stanier’s students is co-advised by colleague Greg Carmichael, whose work focuses on Asian air quality data and the chemistry of reactive nitrogen. Stanier’s third student is focused on hydrogen production from waste, a practice he says can only benefit the economy by exchanging waste for helpful chemicals.

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