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Probing Air Pollution with Laser Sensors

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Mark Zondlo, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University and its Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, develops tools to measure air pollution in more sophisticated and nimble ways than previously possible.

His specially engineered laser sensors and drones help reveal the impact of greenhouse gases and air pollutants on the climate, where pollutants come from, and how clouds of air pollution — such as smog — form. The ultimate goal is to inform policy that will clear the air and our lungs and slash air pollution’s staggering impact on human mortality. Severe air pollution causes the premature death worldwide of more than 5.5 million people per year, according to news reports based on data compiled for the Global Burden of Disease project.

Zondlo joined the Princeton faculty in 2008. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Rice University in chemistry and a doctoral degree from the University of Colorado in physical and atmospheric chemistry. As associate director for external partnerships at the Andlinger Center, he sparks opportunities to partner with corporations, nonprofits and governmental entities, and oversees the Princeton E-ffiliates Partnership, a corporate membership program that forges collaborations between academic experts on campus and practitioners in industry.

My research group studies the fundamental areas in the atmospheric sciences, such as cloud formation, the composition of aerosol particles — haze, dust and smoke — in the air that seed clouds, and the sources of greenhouse gases. We use observations to quantify how human emissions impact the natural environment, from air quality and human health to cloud formation to climate change.

The largest sources of uncertainty in predicting climate changes like rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns lie in the effects of aerosol particles and cloud formation. Human activities, such as burning coals and fossil fuels, contribute to global climate change. But without precise and accurate measurements, it is hard to know the most effective changes to make to protect our environment. That is why we decided to create new sensors to answer key scientific questions.

There are commercialized technologies available that can measure various gases in the atmosphere. But they tend to be bulky, expensive and are quite difficult to deploy in relevant field environments. They also consume a lot of power, so we want to make systems that are much smaller, but maintain robustness, high accuracy and precision.

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