Understanding what's in the air we breathe

UAlberta professor gets lab upgrade to delve into the complex chemistry of urban air pollution as part of $2.1M federal funding boost.


You might think you’re getting nothing but fresh air in each lungful you breathe, but air quality is actually influenced by a complex mix of chemical reactions that researchers know very little about.

What they do know is that road dust—which may include everything from soil and gravel to bits of tire and brake pad shavings—contributes about 25 per cent of breathable particulate matter emissions in Alberta and is a factor in the province’s significant reduction in springtime air quality.

But what happens when this often metal-rich dust reacts with typical urban gas pollutants—sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone—or even the sun? University of Alberta chemistry professor Sarah Styler intends to find out.

“Our research focuses on gaining a fundamental understanding of chemistry and photochemistry in dust- and metal-rich aerosols, with the ultimate goal of improving our understanding of urban air quality in developing and industrially influenced regions,” said Styler, who received $158,000 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund to upgrade her lab.

With the funding, Styler says, she will be able to outfit her lab with purifying equipment as well as ultra-sensitive measuring and compound characterization equipment.


“As vehicle and industrial emissions regulations continue to tighten in coming years, the relative contribution of dust to the urban particulate population will only continue to increase,” said Styler. “To forecast the concentration of the gases in the atmosphere that are potentially of interest for human health, we need to have a full understanding of their loss pathways, including those mediated by atmospheric dust.”

She adds her research will also help inform similar conversations in developing nations where desert dust and lax emission regulations contribute to a possibly more dangerous situation.

“This research will help air quality modellers better predict the air quality in a given area and gain a full understanding of what kind of reactions are happening in that environment,” she said. “If you are missing a part of the picture, it can hamper your ability to predict air quality.”

All told, 14 U of A researchers received $2.1 million from the John R. Evans Leaders Fund. Created by the Government of Canada in 1997, the fund is used to invest in state-of-the-art facilities and equipment in Canada’s universities to undertake world-class research.

John R. Evans Leaders Fund recipients

Fourteen UAlberta projects received a total of $2.1 million:

Hyo-Jick Choi, chemical and materials engineering
Micro-milling workstation to develop microfabricated platforms for cost-effective solid-type vaccines

Duane Froese, earth and atmospheric sciences
Infrastructure for laboratory and field studies of northern environmental change

Todd Lowary, chemistry
Accelerating access to complex oligosaccharides through automation

Sahar Pirooz Azad, electrical and computer engineering
Reliable operation and control of mixed AC-DC power systems

Sarah Styler, chemistry
Aerosol chemistry and photochemistry in polluted urban environments: Research for tomorrow’s megacities

Martin Barczyk, mechanical engineering
Research infrastructure for enabling autonomy in mechatronic systems

Craig Chapman, physical education and recreation
Collection and analytics of real-time big data in human sensorimotor behaviour

Tom Hobman, cell biology
Rapid multi-scale analyses for RNA profiling during viral infection and in RNA interference pathways

Rouslan Krechetnikov, mathematical and statistical sciences
Fundamental questions of shock wave–liquid interface interactions

Vladimir Michaelis, chemistry
Nuclear magnetic resonance console for characterizing promising next-generation materials

Mohtada Sadrzadeh, mechanical engineering
Infrastructure for characterization of antifouling thin film nanocomposite membranes

Dominic Sauvageau, chemical and materials engineering
Development, characterization and analysis of native and engineered microbial systems

Mahdi Tavakoli Afshari, electrical and computer engineering
Facility for robot-assisted rehabilitation, therapy and surgery

Gregory Tyrrell, laboratory medicine and pathology/diagnostic and applied microbiology
Building the foundation of a translational laboratory for infectious diseases research