Jathar awarded EPA Early Career Award to model air-polluting VCPs

Shantanu Jathar, Energy Institute researcher and assistant professor of mechanical engineering, has been awarded an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant to model Volatile Chemical Products, or VCPs, which rival motor vehicle emissions as top sources of urban air pollution.

The $400,000 Chemical Mechanisms to Address New Challenges in Air Quality Modeling grant is an EPA early career award that is part of the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program.  Atmospheric Science Professor Jeff Pierce is a co-investigator on the project along with doctoral students Sreejith Sasidharan and Abraham Dearden.

Shantanu Jathar, Energy Institute researcher and assistant professor of mechanical engineering
Shantanu Jathar, Energy Institute researcher and assistant professor of mechanical engineering

Objective, approach, and expected results

Historically, urban air pollution has been largely attributed to traffic and electricity use, but recent research points to an additional culprit that may surprise you: common consumer products. From household cleaners to the most delightful perfume, what are known as ‘Volatile Chemical Products’, or VCPs, could be much more harmful for urban air quality than previously thought. This is due to their evaporative nature.

“VCPs contain and emit chemical compounds similar, but not identical, to those found in the tailpipe of a gasoline vehicle or the smokestack of a coal power plant,” Jathar said. “These compounds contribute to poor air quality through the formation of ozone and fine particles.”

Although we know VCPs are a problem, understanding of this phenomenon is still in its infant stages and little is known about the atmospheric chemical reactions linked to these products that are contributing to poor air quality. Current models being used to support research efforts in this area are outdated and hinder experts from making much-needed scientific breakthroughs.

To reduce air pollution, it’s vital to understand each pollutant source and their contribution, which is where Jathar and his team step in. By creating model inputs to help identify the depth and breadth of the VCP problem, as well as what’s causing it, we can begin to develop more environmentally friendly alternatives to everyday consumer products. Known in this field of modeling as “the chemical mechanism”, this component will be paired with updated air quality models as an essential tool in advancing knowledge of urban air quality and helping strategize the most effective approach to reduce exposure to harmful air pollutants. Research findings of this project could help inform policy decision-makers as they form regulatory requirements.

Societal need of the research

Air pollution effects the planet and everyone on it – our air quality, public health, climate, and ecosystems.

“One cannot shield themselves from the emissions and air quality impacts from a coal power plant even if they don’t use that electricity, or in this case deodorant and scented air fresheners,” says Jathar. “When we understand the links between sources and impacts, we can mitigate emissions from the sources causing significant damage.”

“We need to find greener, more sustainable solutions to our everyday chemical use.” – S. Jathar

Solutions exist to manage emissions from coal power plants and gasoline-powered vehicles (think catalytic converters) but there are no commonly adopted solutions for the urban air quality impact of VCPs. Jathar’s research is a critical first step in understanding how chemical formulations can be redesigned without losing their function – think dish soap that still cleans well but doesn’t create unintended environmental consequences.

Inspiration

Growing up in India in a suburb of Mumbai, one of the most densely population cities in the world, Jathar witnessed the consequences of air pollution firsthand.

“While scientists and regulators have worked together to reduce the environmental burden in developed economies, air pollution continues to place a high burden on populations living in dense metropolises,” he said. “This is particularly striking for megacities in developing economies, the likes of Delhi, Beijing, and Karachi.”

“Urban air pollution is an outcome from a mixture of sources, so one needs a multi-pronged, multi-source strategy to make tangible improvements.” – S. Jathar

Jathar’s hope is for his group, as part of the larger atmospheric chemistry and air quality community, is to provide fundamental scientific insight into the sources and impacts of air pollution. This insight can serve as a primary backbone for technology development such as emissions control devices, policy interventions such as reduced fossil fuel use, and behavioral change campaigns to bike instead of drive.

About EPA’s STAR program

The STAR program stimulates and supports scientific and engineering research that advances EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment.