Toronto, ON – Researchers at the University of Toronto have detected migratory pollutants from a forest fire in Quebec and even particles from a sandstorm in the Sahara in Toronto air, findings that could someday give regulatory agencies an idea of who is contributing to the pollutants found in urban air.
“It’s a bit of detective work,” says Greg Evans, a professor in the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry. “We happened to know when that forest fire was happening in Quebec and we realized that this mixture of different particles that we found in downtown Toronto is a signature for a forest fire.” With the dust particles from the Sahara, the researchers recognized sand-like particles and were ultimately able to track their trajectory from the desert, across the Atlantic Ocean to Mexico, then north through the United States to Toronto.
The researchers used a device known as a laser ablation mass spectrometer (LAMS), which pulls in air from a city street adjoining the university and accelerates the pollutants to close to the speed of a bullet. As a particle passes by two lasers, sensors calculate its exact speed and tell the LAMS when to fire a third, high-powered laser that vaporizes a portion of the particle, sending fragments hurtling along a flight tube. Lighter molecules take less time to travel down the flight tube, giving the researchers the particle’s chemical signature. Evans says that once they build up a library of particles, this research could make it possible to identify pollutants without any knowledge of their origin.
The findings appear in the October issue of the journal Atmospheric Environment, and were funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Environment Canada, the Toxic Substance Research Initiative, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Innovation Trust.