IMAQS
Institute for Multidimensional Air Quality Studies
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by Noelle Heinze
Maintaining a balance between computer modeling and measuring, UH researchers from the Institute for Multidimensional Air Quality Studies (IMAQS), use sophisticated computational tools to provide information about air quality.
Dr. Daewon Byun, professor of geosciences and director of IMAQS, and his colleagues, researchers from the fields of geosciences, mathematics, computer science, and chemistry, create computer models, based on an understanding of specific factors that affect air pollution in Houston. Then, they plug different scenarios into their models, sometimes running the same scenario more than once, keeping all factors constant except one.  In this way, a correct combination can be found for improving air quality in particular situations.  However, “A model is only a model unless you verify it with measurements and real-world data,” cautions Byun, as he explains how he and his colleagues create their models and apply mathematical measurements to characterize weather conditions affecting air pollution.  “Scenarios are simulated using emissions information from economic activities of production and consumption,” he says.  The variety and number of pollutants are collected and stored in a database for further application. Byun and Dr. Sharon Zhong, associate professor of geosciences at UH, oversee the modeling and measuring sides of the program, respectively.
As summer slows down and fades into fall, so do opportunities to enjoy Galveston’s sea breeze.  For researchers at IMAQS, the sea breeze remains on their minds as they work to characterize its onset and its effect on the air we breathe.  Led by Zhong, this project is one of several conducted at the UH Coastal Center, located 10 to 12 miles from Galveston.  The onset of the sea breeze is important because it comes in from the ocean around 10:00 or 11:00 a.m., bringing with it emissions from the ship channel that earlier drifted out to the bay. "This polluted air comes back at a time when the sun is very strong and photochemistry takes place, so chemicals start reacting rapidly to form ozone, and that air is pushed back to Houston for us to breathe," says Byun. This is a concern because a high ozone concentration may cause some damage to human health and vegetation.  A 40-meter tower at the coastal center will be utilized to gather data for this project.  In addition, the tower is currently used for atmospheric boundary measurements, such as those taken by tethered weather balloons that can be raised up and down to measure conditions in the middle of the Earth’s boundary layer atmosphere.
According to Dr. Byun, IMAQS is developing a joint multipollutant air quality facility, so UH can reach out to other universities to collaborate and form a larger research community dealing with air pollution issues. Also in the works is the development of a Texas emissions inventory preparations system that, says Byun, “showcases one of IMAQS' unique capabilities: processing emissions inventory data to characterize conditions in the Houston area.”
“Because petrochemical factories generate lots of ‘interesting’ chemicals,” continues Byun, “we are working on photochemical modeling of ethylene and propylene emissions, using computers and chemistry to understand how these chemicals react in the atmosphere to eventually form ozone.”  Another project is real-time trajectory analysis operation and tool development, which involves setting up simple programs to trace source and receptor relations of air processes to find a problem area in a high ozone event. 
Two other projects include the development of an air quality prediction system for studying the impact of forest fires on regional air quality and modeling the effects of land use/land cover modifications on the urban heat island phenomena in Houston.  The first project will benefit one of the laboratories of the USDA, where they are studying the impact of forest fires on air quality forecasting.  A model developed by IMAQS will be used to input their data and implement their studies.  The second project deals with sustainable development.  The goal is to see how changes in the urban environment affect air pollution.  Finally, using all these tools and data, IMAQS researchers want to build a system to allow daily air quality forecasting. 
This fall, IMAQS is joined by two new faculty members, Drs. Barry Lefer and Bernhard Rappengluck, experts in atmospheric geochemistry.  According to Dr. John F. Casey, chair of geosciences, “These analytical chemists will be a big part of future measurement programs we have planned in Houston.” Casey elaborates, “These programs will involve setting up instruments all over the city, by the ship channel and other places, and having several mobile facilities that can be towed on the back of a truck to a variety of areas.”  In addition, Casey explains that some instruments will be set up in local high schools, so students in chemistry and physics classes will be able to participate in projects, too. 
Researchers at IMAQS will be very busy this fall and in the future as an important resource for Houston.  As Dr. John L. Bear, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics summarizes, “IMAQS scientists use sophisticated scientific tools and current environmental data to model the air quality in the Greater Houston Area.  The center works closely with national, state, and local leaders to ensure that public policy is guided by the best science.”
© University of Houston 2004