We can learn about how the particulates, and the aerosols and the gases — you know, the pollutants that we generate — how they behave as a function of altitude. —Michael Petersen, electronics engineering major at Weber State

OGDEN — Students at Weber State University say they've found a new and improved way to track air pollution.

Instead of getting data from fixed areas in the state, their system can gather information specific to a neighborhood.

"Utah air is notoriously dirty,” said Michael Petersen, an electronics engineering major at Weber State. "We're not making less pollution every year; we're making more, so the problem's only going to get worse."

Petersen sees firsthand how thick, muggy air affects his family.

"I have four sons,” he said. “They all have asthma, and there are certain days when they can't go outside and play."

That's why Petersen was more than happy to help develop a small box of circuits called a multisensor array, or MSA. It’s a small data-logging computer that weighs less than a pound and can run on a battery for five to six hours.

The idea is to get their sensors up on the edge of space using high-altitude weather balloons to help gather real-time data during some of Utah's worst pollution days.

“It takes measurements — things like accelerations, gyroscopic motions, magnetic fields, temperatures, pressure, humidity, things like that,” he said. “The (Environmental Protection Agency) uses a gravimetric measuring method, which uses filters, and they average those over time. What’s nice about this is we’re going to have real-time data, and it’s light enough that we can fly it on a balloon.”

The MSA has already made several trips up above the pollution.

"We can learn about how the particulates, and the aerosols and the gases — you know, the pollutants that we generate — how they behave as a function of altitude,” he said.

The project is part of the High Altitude Reconnaissance Balloon for Outreach and Research program, or HARBOR, a program WSU professor John Sohl started seven years ago.

"It's been very exciting to me as a professor, because I've watched my students evolve from absolutely nothing to a very robust and very useful package that will improve, hopefully, our quality of lives,” Sohl said.

The MSA won't replace systems the Division of Air Quality uses, which are fixed in place, but Sohl says the MSA can add to it.

“We can go to a school and measure right at the school,” he said. “We can go to the Great Salt Lake and see what’s happening at the Great Salt Lake. We can measure pollution anywhere we want to because it’s a mobile platform.”

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The data won’t have the precision as the fixed systems, but "some data is better than no data," Sohl said.

Students now are working on packing even more sensors into the array before putting more of balloons into the sky.

"We can get a more broad picture of what's going on with our pollution,” Petersen said.

They're currently working on a partnership with the Division of Air Quality and the University of Utah atmospheric sciences group to put the device to practical use along the Wasatch Front.

Email: manderson@deseretnews.com