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NSF Grant Awarded to CAEE Department's Dr. Peter DeCarlo

October 3, 2012

Several professors in the Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAEE) Department at Drexel University recently received a National Science Foundation grant in the amount of $467,925 entitled “MRI: Acquisition of a Soot-Particle Aerosol Mass Spectrometer for the Measurement of Submicron Particulate Chemical Composition.”  Assistant Professor Peter DeCarlo is the Principal Investigator (PI) of this project, and Assistant Professor Michael Waring is a co-PI, both are members of the CAEE Department.  Additional Co-PIs on this project are Igor Burstyn, Associate Professor, School of Public Health; David L. Miller, Professor and Interim Department Head, Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics Department; and David J. Velinsky, Department Head, Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Sciences and Director of the Patrick Center for Environmental Policy at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

The acquisition of an Aerodyne Soot-Particle Aerosol Mass Spectrometer (SP-AMS) will allow engineers and scientists at Drexel University to perform cutting edge interdisciplinary research involving the size and chemical composition measurements of aerosols, also called particulates.  Although the mid-Atlantic region hosts many major research universities with world-class aerosol scientists, there are currently no aerosol mass spectrometers of this type in this region, providing unique analytical capabilities for the University and the regional collaborators.  

This SP-AMS improves researchers’ abilities to measure the size, physical shape, concentration and chemical composition of aerosols.  The detailed characterization of ambient aerosols, also known as particulate matter (PM), is essential to understanding the roles that aerosols can play in Earth’s climate system.  In addition to their effects on climate, aerosols also cause adverse affects on human health.  Higher concentrations of particulate matter are known to reduce life expectancy and negatively impact cardiovascular health. Improved characterization of aerosols and their role in human health is an important focus for many environmental and public health scientists.  The SP-AMS instrument is a relatively new development, and while based on previous instruments, adds the ability to measure black carbon, an important chemical component of particulate matter.  Black carbon is the product of incomplete combustion and is the chemical component that gives soot its black color.  

This aerosol mass spectrometer will be used for many collaborative research projects with other Universities in the mid-Atlantic region. One intended project for the new instrumentation will take place in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia.  Researchers from Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Clean Air Council are interested in quantifying the different urban sources of particulate matter in this area, including vehicle emissions, industrial emissions, and regional contribution to particulate matter.  This area is a unique study site.  It is bisected by interstate 95 and has increased emissions from heavy diesel traffic due to its proximity to a nearby industrial port.  There are also several local industries that contribute to the particulate matter levels in the area.  Many of the urban sources for the Port Richmond area in Philadelphia emit black carbon in addition to other pollutants, making this an ideal location for a source apportionment study using this instrument.  Once sources can be characterized and quantified, appropriate steps can be taken to reduce emissions in the area and subsequent benefits to local air quality.

Dr. DeCarlo also intends to work with researchers in the Patrick Center at the Academy of Natural Sciences to investigate the impacts of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” on the environment (e.g. Marcellus Shale).  Research by the Patrick Center looks at hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale area as it relates to stream and ecosystem health.  Now studies examining the impacts of Marcellus Shale development on particulates and air quality can be pursued using the best available instrumentation. Combining these projects as they relate to fracturing will allow for a mixed-media approach to assessing the ecosystem impacts of hydraulic fracturing in land, water, and air.

The acquisition of this spectrometer is a significant asset that will further enhance the University’s research capabilities, as well as allow for further collaboration efforts within Drexel and in the greater mid-Atlantic region.