Air quality - pure and simple, or toxic and complex?
7 mins read
Poor air quality is doubtless one of the biggest challenges of our time, affecting us on a global and domestic level.
The Health Effects Institute(1) has stated that on average we’ve each now lost one year and eight months of our life expectancy to air pollution, and even as far back as 2012 the World Health Organisation associated poor air quality with seven million deaths annually(2).
Meanwhile the UK government recently announced that sales of the two most polluting fuels will be phased out in England to help cut air pollution. Domestic owners of wood burners, stoves and open fires will no longer be able to buy house coal or wet wood under a ban to be rolled out from next year.
Poor air quality has historically been a by-product of economic development, but today the problem is so acute that it is a break on growth and harming society. The cost of air pollution to the NHS as far back as 2016 exceeds one billion pounds annually(3), while there are clear links between asthma and air pollution supported by Asthma UK(4) and various DEFRA(5,6) and government reports(7). The reality is that the indirect and long-term effects and costs are unknown and require more detailed analysis.
In late 2019 I presented at an event in London looking at the construction supply chain in the context of SmartBuildings, and the consequential CO2 waste production due to inefficiencies. The irony was that the location of the event had excessive particulate matter (known as pm10/pm2.5 depending on size), which are the tiny dust size solids that come from industrial, domestic and traffic sources which we when we breathe in clog our lungs, damage our health and reduce our life expectancy.
These recordings are in excess of the EU’s specified limits, and this is a frequent occurrence in the UK. As I left the event to cross the road for Earl’s Court station, I had to pull my coat over my mouth due to the intense exhaust fumes. As I waited at the traffic lights, a parent and his young child in a pram were on the opposite side, neither of them seeming to mind the intense, exhaust-riddled air. How easily we acclimatise and accept our environment.
Dr Xiangyu Sheng, a director for air quality and climate change at GL Hearn consultancy advises: “The real estate industry plays a large role in tackling air quality and climate crisis through influencing future development. New materials that are sustainably sourced are also helping to reduce the impact that new developments are having across the UK. We are seeing innovative approaches to building design and the use of natural building materials, such as timber. This not only brings aesthetic benefits but also contributes to the success of the built environment by improving health and well-being for people living, working and visiting, as natural material is free from synthetic chemicals.
There is also an increased focus on the durability, efficiency and environmental resilience of built assets because of ambitious regulations being introduced to reduce air emissions, as well as increasing concern over climate change. Technology and the role it can play in the design, build and management of the built environment is a key component for us. It can provide cost effective solutions, from smart tech that helps heat and cool buildings to more connected intelligent facilities."
“Solutions will need to be innovative and long-term as much as they will need to be specific and targeted if change is to be effective and environmental impact minimised.”
Dr Xiangyu Sheng, GL Hearn
As alluded to by Dr Sheng, the supply chain has its part to play in minimising damaging air emissions, while simultaneously improving health and wellbeing.
Mixing air with artificial intelligence
Poor air quality generates significant debate with people questioning who is to blame, as well as what are the causes and effects. Studies exist(6,9), yet they potentially lack two core criteria: the first is a granular approach to obtaining significant data readings of the key particulate matter; the second is obtaining this data over a continuous period of time to be able to determine insights. This frequently results in short-term surveys which lack objectivity and detailed evidence.
To reconcile this, a plausible first step could be for a community to build a basic system on commodity sensors, transmitting this data over a shared network (typically WiFi) to free websites that can display these results (these are already operating today). The systems are typically based on open-source technologies, so free to use to an extent, and a great first step in identifying the problem, albeit limited in functionality.
Commercialising this approach provides the next stage. By deploying a concentration of sensors that are able to collate significant data, added with real-time reporting, provides richer data that results in objective facts. This approach also benefits from the application of algorithms with other data sets, such as weather, industry and transport, allowing us to predict the areas that need the most attention and prioritise these first.
Dr Dawid Hanak, a senior lecturer in Energy and Process Engineering at Cranfield School of Water, Energy and Environment advises: "It’s not just particulate matter that we need to be concerned about. It’s also an increasing CO2 level that significantly affects our health and wellbeing. Despite our efforts to curb emissions, mostly via investment in and incentives for renewable energy, the atmospheric CO2 concentration is still increasing rapidly(11). It’s alarming that we are starting to see the dire consequences of global warming, such as the ice caps melting, the increase of sea levels causing flooding of the coastal areas, the decline of lakes and drastic weather changes(12).
To meet the UK’s net-zero commitment by 2050 as outlined by the government, the industry must deploy carbon capture, utilisation and storage along with renewable energy to achieve the desired reductions in CO2 emissions from power and industrial sectors in this current timeline(13). This technology has already been applied in an industrial setting for gas purification and hydrogen production since the 1930s(14). However, it’s wider deployment to other industries, especially for generating electricity with low CO2 emissions has been delayed. This is due to high costs associated with mature off-the-shelf technologies, risks with new significant bespoke products and insufficient investment incentives. Emerging technologies show a promise of not only lower equipment and operating costs, but primarily of innovative business models that enable industries to engage in the circular economy, reaching their corporate sustainability commitments and maximising their profit in the long term. Further R&D activities can be significantly enhanced with the new AI capabilities that can support the process development cycle and simultaneously optimise multiple possible business models."
As Dr Hanak points out, the technology to tackle the problem exists. With data, artificial intelligence and machine learning we can pin-point key areas that will have a maximum impact, underpinned by an economic model, and therefore promote health and wellbeing as well as economic progress.
Getting to the data
Without doubt this problem will not disappear or improve overnight. It also requires multiple approaches to improve the situation. Community-led initiatives to record air quality are the first step towards a granular approach, which could then benefit from AI capabilities designed to provide insights and support plans to tackle this problem. Enabling this mass data collection requires a secure, robust network, which is where IoT (the Internet of Things) comes in. It provides a secure, manageable eco-system to allow AI algorithms to provide insights needed to address this problem.
The low cost of sensors and availability of a mix of communication systems provide the base infrastructure and data collation ability. It’s relatively simple to build on this and deploy a granular, resilient and secure IoT eco-system to provide the insights we need so we can work out the approaches we need to take.
The problem we have isn’t a technical challenge; it’s an organisational one across industry, government, and most importantly, communities.
Paul is part of Capita consulting, covering a range of services associated with Smart Buildings, Data Centres, Critical Infrastructures and IoT (Internet of Things). With over 20 years of accumulated knowledge in telecoms, ICT, networking and security, Paul brings a more holistic approach to his role.
Dr Xiangyu Sheng
Director Climate Change, Carbon & Air Quality, GL Hearn
Dr Sheng is leading our air quality and climate change team to provide solutions to the most complex challenges. She has over 25 years' experience and is a Fellow of the Meteorological Society (FRMets), a Chartered Engineer (CEng), a Chartered Physicist (CPhys), a Chartered Scientist (CSci) and a Chartered Environmentalist (CEnv).
Dr Dawid Hanak
Senior Lecturer in Energy and Process Engineering at Cranfield School of Water, Energy and Environment
With over 7 years of experience in process development and techno-economic feasibility assessment of advanced power plants, carbon capture and hydrogen production processes for the net-zero economy, Dawid is helping industrial organisations and future energy leaders to solve global challenges via process engineering.