Science Wednesday: Riding in Style

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By Katie Lubinsky

Imagine the swooshing sound of air being vacuumed. This is what I heard the second I stepped into the car. As I looked inside, I noticed the jungle of wires, plugs and Back to the Future-like machines. While maybe not as cool as a DeLorean, the vehicle I just stepped into might just be a clean air scientist’s dream ride.

Lucky for me I was riding with one—EPA’s own Gayle Hagler (someone I’ve blogged about previously). Gayle invited me to ride along with her in EPA’s tripped out science vehicle, so I could learn more about the Geospatial Mapping of Air Pollutants (GMAP) project.

Through the project, Gayle and other researchers are designing, developing and utilizing state-of-the-art mobile measurement systems to gain insights into the sources of air pollution and the impacts emissions have on public health.

This isn’t your ordinary car. What started out as an everyday, economy-sized, gasoline-powered vehicle was transformed into an electric-powered, zero emissions, air quality ‘sniffing’ machine that can travel up to 100 miles, give or take depending on the speed. Gayle and her EPA colleagues use it to measure air pollution on and near highways.

From the outside, the car looks normal except for a small sphere-like ‘hat’ on top. This is where the high-tech GPS antenna sits and gives the car’s location by the second. Inside is where you really notice the differences. Here, there are many machines that take in outside air as the car drives, which analyze the amount and types of pollutants being emitted by other vehicles.

I’ve never ridden in an electric car before and especially one with top-of-the-line air pollution monitoring equipment in it. I felt as if I were a character in Back to the Future with all the science going on but relieved to notice Gayle was way more down to earth than crazed “Doc Brown.” As we rolled, she explained some of the data activities going on around us like how she and her colleagues collect measurements on pollutants important to the Agency, including black carbon, carbon monoxide and fine particles.

I felt very privileged to ride in such style—an innovative EPA vehicle that measures air quality as part of our effort to inform policy from a local to national level.

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

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