06/06/2010 07:00:00

Something in the Air

For the past month, Caltech scientists have been zigzagging across the Los Angeles basin. Using an orange and white DeHavilland Twin Otter aircraft packed with instruments, the researchers have been sampling the air, measuring particles and pollutants to help policymakers improve air quality and dampen the impacts of climate change.

"We want to understand very thoroughly where these particles come from, what they're made of, how they evolve, and eventually how they're removed," says chemical engineer John Seinfeld, who leads the Caltech group. The flights are just one element of a project dubbed CalNex—the nexus of pollution and climate over California—run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

CalNex is one of the largest air-quality experiments ever done, says Jose-Luis Jimenez, a professor at the University of Colorado and a former Caltech postdoc. The project involves three other aircraft—including NOAA's Lockheed WP-3D Orion, a plane with a 100-foot wingspan whose resume includes missions into dozens of hurricanes—and the Atlantis, a research vessel operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. There are also two ground stations, one in Bakersfield and the other on the Caltech campus. (You may have noticed the main part of the Caltech station: two towers of scaffolding and the huddle of trailers on the vacant lot north of the Holliston parking structure.) Such studies are so expensive that they only occur about once a decade in southern California—the crew on campus alone includes more than 60 people from around the world.

Every morning in May, the Caltech team gathers at Ontario International Airport, checking their equipment for the day's four-hour flight. Typically carrying up to 20 passengers when it operates as a commuter plane, the twin-engine turboprop is so stuffed with gizmos and computers that there's only room for one researcher—usually a grad student—who monitors all the instruments, fixing them if needed.


"The best part is getting to see all the instruments in action," says Andrew Metcalf, one of the graduate students who got to fly. Because he can watch the data being collected in real time, he gets a better sense of what each data point on the screen means—important when trying to analyze the information later. For most flights, the plane heads west over Pasadena and toward Long Beach, then crisscrosses back east—occasionally going as far as Palm Springs and the Salton Sea—following the changing chemistry of the particles as they travel with the eastward wind. The plane usually flies at 1,000 feet—as low as the FAA will allow. To measure how the air changes with elevation, the pilot sometimes executes missed approaches—a maneuver in which the plane approaches the runway but doesn't land—over many of the small airports that dot the L.A. basin. On occasion, the plane flies north to Bakersfield and the San Joaquin Valley to see how the air differs from that above the Los Angeles basin.

An inlet pipe jutting from the front of the plane collects the air and channels it through tubes to the instruments, which are lined in racks on one side of the plane. The devices collect an assortment of data, such as the size distribution of particles and their chemical constituents.

Grad student Jill Craven gets to the airport at 6 a.m., having to boot up her mass spectrometer, a powerful but temperamental instrument. "When it breaks down, I get really stressed out," she says. "Field campaigns are wonderful because you're not in the lab. The hard part is that you're under pressure to perform in a month, because we only have four weeks to collect data for the entire year."

Airsickness can also be a challenge. "I flew the first flight and I got really sick," Metcalf recalls. As it happened, there was no airsickness bag on board that day, and one of the pilots had to sacrifice his lunch bag. "It was about a week and a half before I got up the nerve to try it again. Now I take motion-sickness drugs to help me out." Still, it's much more fun to be up in the air than cooped up in a lab, he says. "It's exciting to fly around and see exactly what's out there in the L.A. basin."

So what is out there? It will be years before scientists finish analyzing all the data. The results, however, will have a global impact. CalNex is designed to help untangle the complex ways in which particles affect air quality and climate. For example, tiny particles are bad for air quality, but they can also scatter sunlight, counteracting the warming effect of greenhouse gases. "If you go anywhere in the world," Seinfeld explains, "particles in the air are a mixture of the same kitchen sink of compounds. A large urban area like Los Angeles, with sources ranging from traffic, industry, and ships to vegetation, is the perfect staging area to study how such particles are formed and how they evolve."

Seinfeld, the Nohl Professor and professor of chemical engineering, leads the Caltech team, which includes Richard Flagan, the McCollum-Corcoran Professor of Chemical Engineering and professor of environmental science and engineering.

View our narrated slideshow of the Calnex plane and its instrumentation.

Written by Marcus Woo