USTAR-supported technologies look to better address Utah’s air quality challenges

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Two years ago, Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality announced an ambitious goal to reduce annual emissions into Utah’s air by 25 percent by 2026 to address Utah’s air quality challenges.

While total emissions in Utah dropped to 1.7 million tons in 2017, compared to 2.5 million tons in 2002, inversion and air pollution continues to be a challenge for the state because of Utah’s topography and climate.

“The bottom line is, while our air is getting cleaner, we will always have inversions,” said Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership, also known as UCAIR. “In the last 15 years, we saw a 32 percent increase in population in the state, but we also saw 38 percent decrease in emissions, but we still have inversions.”

Inversions are weather phenomena in which high-pressure weather systems sit and hold in water and other particulate matter due to the topography of the state, explains Carter.

“Once that lid goes on, pollution doubles every single day. So even though we have less pollution than we’ve ever had, because of the lid created, it’s still exacerbated…even though we continue to drive down emissions, we will always have those inversions,” said Carter. “So we have to mitigate the problem.”

Several technologies supported through the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) are developing solutions to better monitor air pollutants or address challenges to reduce emissions.

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Vaporsens is developing real-time chemical sensors that can provide critical information about the sources of air toxins, such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, both of which are released through wood burning. These types of toxins can impact Utah’s air quality not only in the summer during wildfire season, but also significantly affect Utah’s air quality in the winter as homeowners use their wood-burning stoves or fireplaces.

In fact, Carter noted that approximately 15 percent of Utah’s emissions in the winter come from wood smoke, such as from wood-burning fireplaces.

Vaporsens has partnered with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, Division of Air Quality (DAQ) to better understand outdoor air toxins in the Bountiful area. Currently, DAQ uses 24-hour average snapshot pictures of pollution through live streaming. However, Vaporsens’ technology may allow the state to monitor toxin levels more directly.

“Our ability to protect human health and the environment depends on having a clear picture of how much pollution is in the air and where it comes from,” said Steve Packham, toxicologist for the Utah Division of Air Quality, when the Vaporsens partnership was announced. “This collaborative research…has the potential of replacing our current 24h-average snapshot pictures of pollution with a video cam live streaming of the pollution picture from nanomaterial sensors.”

In addition to wood, Carter says behavioral challenges—such as idling—pose the most significant problem when it comes to addressing air quality.

“The biggest challenges facing the state related to air quality is behavior,” said Carter. “About 52 percent of all of our emissions specifically during an inversion come from automobiles. And so when we look at how people use their cars, that is a big issue as it relates to driving down our emissions.”

Another USTAR-supported project with Blyncsy is developing technology that could be used to reduce congestion and traffic, therefore leading to shorter commutes and reducing vehicle emissions.

Blyncsy’s technology, which collects anonymous, unique identifiers from devices such as a cell phone, can help organizations like transportation departments understand congestion, travel times and delays.

Additionally, several USTAR-supported projects are working to address emissions from industry sources, such as mining. Carter notes that these sources represent 10 to 13 percent of emissions during inversions, the smallest point source during inversions when compared to personal use such as cars, stoves, furnaces or water heaters.  

Emissions-Based Maintenance (EBM) works with heavy industry sectors—such as mining, railroad locomotives, stationary power generation and mass transportation—to improve engine combustion efficiency through improved maintenance practices. EBM estimates they have saved 80 million gallons of fuel, $240 million in fuel and operating costs and eliminated approximately 1.8 billion pounds of carbon dioxide output using their technology.

“The ROI is astronomical, not only in fuel savings, but in pollution reduction as well.”” said Jeramiah Forbush, president of EBM, in an interview earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Sustainable Energy Solutions is working to develop post-combustion technology that has the potential to reduce carbon emissions from fossil-fueled power plants by 95 to 99 percent. While other carbon capture processes are currently on the market, Sustainable Energy Solutions’ Cryogenic Carbon Capture is half the cost of its competitors. In addition to removing carbon dioxide, the process also removes other air toxins such as mercury, sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides, which all can contribute to smog and pollution.

“The state has picked a lot of the low-hanging fruit in addressing our air quality issues,” said Andrew Sweeney, Ph.D., emerging technology lead for USTAR. “We have to innovate if we want to address the rest. We need new technologies, and we need personal accountability, and hopefully, we get both.”

To learn more about USTAR-supported technologies, visit