black carbon

The Road to “Genius:” It All Started with Science

By Sherri Hunt

Sherri Hunt and Tami Bond for web (1)

MacArthur Fellow Tami Bond (left) and EPA Scientist Sherri Hunt

When I started at EPA back in 2003, my mentor, Darrell Winner and I, began working with a recently funded grantee of the Agency’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, Tami Bond. She was my first insight into the projects EPA typically funds and we were extremely excited to follow her career as she investigated the effects of black carbon. Darrell and I would soon come to know Tami as a visionary and talented researcher that is changing the world with her ground-breaking research.

Over the past decade, EPA has supported Tami’s work through several grants issued to the University of Illinois where she has led projects investigating the complex relationship between black carbon and climate change. ​ A few months ago, she was awarded a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship. Also known as “genius grants,” these prestigious awards are given to individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits. Her scientific curiosity and resourcefulness have helped her become a leading name in black carbon research.

When I think back on my past 11 years working with the EPA, Tami stands out in my mind as a great role model for innovative and visionary scientists all over the world. She is a dedicated scientist that isn’t afraid to tackle big problems, yet still brings an attention to detail unlike anything Darrell and I have ever seen.

Tami’s global approach to black carbon research is a prime example of her ability to conduct meticulous research to investigate the world’s global problems.

Black carbon, a particle created through the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass directly absorbs sunlight and reduces the reflectivity of snow and ice, accelerating ice and snow melt. It also contributes to the adverse impacts on human health associated with ambient fine particles, including cardiovascular and respiratory effects. Although there is still some uncertainty about black carbon, it is clear the reduction of black carbon emissions will bring both climate and public health benefits.

Early on, Tami had the forethought to look at the detailed analytical problem that exists between the scientific knowledge base surrounding black carbon and taking action on climate change. Thanks in large part to her work, we now know that black carbon offers a promising mitigation opportunity for addressing some near-term climate effects.

The MacArthur Foundation applauds Tami for her creative “beyond the laboratory” work combining engineering and public policy to provide “the most comprehensive synthesis of the impact of black carbon on climate to date.” Her research indicates that global black carbon emissions contribute to anthropogenic climate change much more than we previously thought.

Although solving this puzzle is a daunting one, I’m confident a dauntless scientist like Tami holds the key to understanding the specific climate impacts of black carbon and helping millions of people breathe cleaner air.

About the Author: Sherri Hunt, Ph.D., is the Assistant Center Director and Matrix Interface for the EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy research program. She enjoys reading, running and connecting scientific experts to develop the next generation of work that will enable more people to breathe cleaner air.

 

Image courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Image courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

EPA STAR Grantee and MacArthur Fellow Tami Bond, Ph.D. recently stopped by EPA’s Headquarters in Washington, DC and answered a few questions for us.

When did you first know you wanted to be a scientist?

I still don’t know if I want to be a scientist but I know I want to solve problems.

I grew up in Southern California which was very polluted at the time and it never occurred to me that that was weird. That there were days that you just couldn’t play outside and that was just the normal. After I had moved away, I was coming back to visit my parents. In Southern California there is a bowl of mountains and all of the Los Angeles pollution washes up against the mountains where my parents lived. As the plane was diving down into this cauldron of brown soot I just went “I have to do something about this.” That was my ‘a-ha’ moment.

I’m not sure I would consider myself a scientist really. I’m an engineer and I use scientific tools to solve problems.

Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to be an engineer?

I went to college for a year and then I left. I worked in an auto shop and I just wanted to learn a lot about cars because I thought they were cool. The environment in the auto shop was a little bit chauvinistic. So one day, I woke up and I decided I want to go to engineering school and then it just clicked. I figured I’m not going to work on cars – I’m going to design cars.

What do you like most about your research?

The ability to put things together. I enjoy the hard science and the discovery but we are still at a rewarding phase of scientific development. A lot of disciplines haven’t merged and people don’t know how to merge them. The notion that you can solve something using two or three different tools is fun.

What has the EPA STAR program meant to your work?

A lot. There are agencies that fund basic science but EPA is the one that really focuses on the use of basic science to tackle applied problems. And that’s what I’m attracted to — things that make a difference to people. I think I would be really frustrated if EPA or the STAR program didn’t exist.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in a career in science or engineering?

Learn the basics really well. Don’t worry about if it relates to what you want to do because everything will eventually relate to what you want to do.

What do you think our biggest scientific challenge is in the next 20/50/100 years?

This is probably not what you are expecting to hear but the ability to synthesize all the information that is flowing from the scientific community. We are generating knowledge at an amazing rate. A single person’s brain is not getting any more connections in it and yet the amount of information is growing exponentially. We need the ability to capitalize on the wealth of knowledge that we have already developed.

I can think of societal challenges like climate change or energy consumption that we’re going to have to tackle but I think that the challenge for scientists is in the way we do business so that we are able to tackle these challenges.

If you could have one super power, what would it be?

I would like to be able to become really small so I wouldn’t need to use instruments to look at particles.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Supporting Innovation for Cleaner Burning Cookstoves and Cleaner Air

By Jim Johnson

The end of May is always one of my favorite times of year. It includes Memorial Day, the official holiday to honor the service of our dedicated military personnel and military veterans, and my birthday.

If your neighborhood is anything like mine, the end of May also coincides with the time of year when the evening air fills with the unmistakable scent of backyard grilling. Barbeque season. Here in this country, that distinctive odor of smoke is associated with tasty food, relaxing, and good times spent with friends and family.

But for most of the world’s population, the smell of an open fire is something completely different. It’s not nostalgic or a welcome diversion from the norm, but a necessity.

Nearly three billion people worldwide rely on burning fuels such as wood, plant matter, coal, and animal waste. And because most of that occurs indoors, it’s a health hazard, too.  The World Health Organization estimates that exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves leads to 4.3 million premature deaths per year.

Cookstove researcher at work

EPA is a leader in conducting and supporting clean cookstove research.

What’s more, it’s not just a local problem. The smoke from traditional cookstoves is a major source of black carbon, an air pollutant linked to a range of impacts associated with our changing climate, including increased temperatures, accelerated ice and snow melt, and changes in the pattern and intensity of precipitation.

And that brings me to another reason why the end of May this particular year is even a bit more special for me than usual: Yesterday, EPA announced almost $9 million in research grants awarded to six universities to help usher in a new generation of clean, efficient cookstoves.

Funded through our Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, the research will focus on measuring and communicating the benefits of adopting cleaner cooking, heating, and lighting practices. The impact of the work will improve air quality and protect the health of billions of people, as well as slow climate change—a benefit for everyone, and the global environment, too.

The universities and their research are:

  • Colorado State University researchers will provide new cookstoves to rural areas in China, India, Kenya, and Honduras to explore how their adoption will impact and improve emissions, chemistry, and movement of indoor smoke; they will also assess health and climate impacts.
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers will investigate how local resources in rural communities in Alaska, Nepal, Mongolia, and China affect the acceptance of cleaner heating stoves, and take measurements to learn how their use impacts air quality and carbon emissions.
  • University of Minnesota, Minneapolis researchers will measure changes in air quality and health outcomes from cleaner cooking and heating technologies in China, and model regional weather, air quality, exposure and human health impacts.
  • University of California, Berkeley researchers will explore the relationship between household and village-scale pollution to understand the effectiveness of using cleaner-burning cookstoves.
  • Yale University researchers will use socioeconomic analyses, emissions and pollution measurements, and global climate modeling to investigate the impacts of using next-generation cookstoves in India.
  • University of Colorado, Boulder researchers will use small, inexpensive sensors to monitor indoor air pollution exposure in homes. They will also collect data through health assessments and outdoor air quality measurements in Ghana.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the grants at a reception hosted by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. EPA is a founding member of this public-private partnership, which seeks to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and protect the environment by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions. Our collective goal: 100 million homes adopting clean cooking solutions by 2020. Achieving that will really be something to celebrate!

About the Author: Dr. James H. Johnson Jr. is the Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, which runs the Agency’s STAR program as well as other grant, fellowship, and awards programs that support high quality research by many of our nation’s leading scientists and engineers.

 

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Researchers Work to Protect Winter from a Changing Climate

By Katie Lubinsky 

EPA cookstove research

EPA cookstove research

I am not a winter person. In fact, I would prefer 80-degree weather all the time. However, as much as I complain and begrudgingly deal with cold weather, I understand its importance for ecosystems and the climate (and that I also cannot escape it unless I travel between hemispheres).

Many are asking whether we’ll lose some of our winter in the coming years.  Despite cold periods, researchers report that ‘warmer than usual’ days are outnumbering ‘colder than usual’ ones.  One pollutant that is contributing to rising temperatures is black carbon, an air pollutant that may not be as well known to the public as carbon dioxide.

Often referred to as soot, black carbon is made up of tiny, black-colored particles that are part of particulate matter (PM). The particles are emitted  from fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass, and are the strongest light-absorbing component of PM. Black carbon particles can absorb a million times more energy than carbon dioxide while up in the atmosphere.

These particles have an enormous affect on climate change.  By directly absorbing light and heat from the sun and earth, black carbon can warm the atmosphere, and, in turn, directly raise temperatures. What’s more, the pollutant can also reduce the ability for snow and ice to reflect light, primarily at the Poles and Himalayas (the albedo effect); thus, causing the snow and ice to warm and essentially melt faster.

EPA researchers and grantees are studying the amount of black carbon being emitted from primary sources such as diesel engines as well as ways to reduce the impact of the pollutant on climate change. A recent EPA-funded report by the Health Effects Institute shows that the Agency’s emissions standards for new diesel engines reduce emissions, including black carbon.

Cookstoves, another high-emitting source of black carbon, are used in many developing countries for cooking food and heating. This results in harmful health effects from poor indoor air quality, particularly for women and children who spend significant time in smoky homes. EPA is testing new and improved cookstoves that reduce emissions and use less polluting fuels and alternative energy, like solar power.­

Progress to reduce black carbon has been made. One study indicates that there has been a 32 percent reduction in black carbon emissions from U.S. mobile sources between 1990 and 2005, according to the Report to Congress on Black Carbon (download at: http://www.epa.gov/blackcarbon/).

EPA’s black carbon research is making important contributions to international efforts to reduce this air pollutant.  Researchers are optimistic that by reducing black carbon, significant progress can be made in battling climate change.

This is good news for those who love winter, snow and outdoor winter sports like snowboarding and skiing. Though I will continue to brace myself before venturing outside in the cold months, I also appreciate the changing seasons and the research that is being conducted to reduce black carbon’s threat to our climate.

About the AuthorKatie Lubinsky is a student contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development in communications and wishes everyday was like summer.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Science Wednesday: EPA Awards Research Grants to Study Black Carbon

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Katie Lubinsky

My morning drive to work involves bypassing road construction. You know … the smell of baking asphalt, those bright, dizzying orange cones in the road that you almost hit, and of course, construction trucks galore!

I breathe in the smoky, throat-gripping exhaust from the construction vehicles, which seems ‘oh-so-healthy’ for the environment. I couldn’t help but wonder how the exhaust from the diesel vehicles here compares to other exhaust sources, not just locally, but globally.
One pollutant associated with diesel exhaust as well as contributing to global air pollution is black carbon (BC). BC is a short-lived aerosol that stays in the atmosphere from days to weeks. While there, BC absorbs solar radiation and quickly warms the climate. It affects weather patterns like rain and cloud formation as well as deposits on snow and ice in Arctic areas that, in turn, darken the snow and ice causing a warming climate by decreasing Earth’s reflective power.

Health effects are also a concern with this pollutant; especially in developing countries where many people rely on indoor cook stoves that burn BC-emitting fuels (biomass, wood or coal). This, in turn, affects those around the stoves. In fact, BC contributes to mortality, cardiovascular and lung problems, and other health problems.

EPA recently awarded nine Science to Achieve Results Research Grants to eight universities to extensively study BC. Research will involve tracking BC aging in the atmosphere, using innovative computer models to look at BC deposits in the snow of the Great Plains and Canada, and studying how BC and other materials deposit into human lungs and incorporate into rain drops.

The grants went to: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (two grants); Carnegie Mellon University; University of California, Irvine; University of California, Riverside; University of Iowa; University of Washington; University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Rutgers University.

The goal of the EPA-supported research is to help answer several scientific and policy-related questions about the effectiveness of actions that can be taken to mitigate BC’s impact on climate and air quality. Hopefully, they will also help clear the air for my future morning commutes.

About the author: Katie Lubinsky is a student contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.