NJ AIR QUALITY BLOG

How Air Quality Engineers Help Keep the Atmosphere Clean

ByMarc Silberberg

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The internet and newspapers are always full of the problems society encounters with unsatisfactory air quality. We read about surveys and statistics claiming different areas around us with different pollution levels. Science has become so sophisticated in the area of air quality, and we have many new words included in our lexicon and dictionaries that folks a hundred years ago would have never heard of.

Have you ever thought about who the people are who study the different aspects of indoor and outdoor air quality scientifically? One of the main associations that tackle this issue is the United States’ government organization called the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). This agency is consulted for many different types of air quality issues. For example, it could be a dryer manufacturer finding ways to cut down on the lint coming out of their machines to make the air indoors and outdoors safer. Or it could be a car manufacturer looking to reduce toxic emissions as the EPA is constantly giving new guidelines to auto manufacturers.

We all agree that our air quality needs much improvement and depending on who we are, where we live and what our lifestyle determines which type of air quality needs improvement. If you are a stay-at-home mom or a guy who loves to cook, you would want to improve the air quality in your kitchen. If you live in a high-rise in Manhattan, you will want to know that there isn’t bad air circulation from one apartment to another or from the hallway to your home.

We have learned in our lifetime about different types of engineers. As children we admired the grand locomotive engineers who are so prominent in children’s literature. (They were called engineers because they oversaw the train’s engine which is more of a colloquial name.) The famous bridges of our country were designed and implemented by civil or structural engineers; highways and tunnels are also designed by civil and structural engineers.

The people who study and implement the changes in the air quality of our world are called air quality engineers. These professionals design different types of computer programs, methods, and hardware to decrease air pollution and increase air quality. They utilize the latest computer simulation studies, analyze and measure the numbers and pertinent statistics to figure out the levels of pollutants in the environment and how to eradicate these pollutants. Working in the private sector, an air quality engineer will work in factories that produce dangerous chemicals to figure out exactly what type of ventilation would be required to keep workers safe. Our government has specific standards of emission limits that factories must conform to and by hiring an air quality engineer, the company can be assured that it is working within the limits of the local government agencies’ guidelines.

Since poor air quality is dangerous to our health an air quality engineer must understand first the details of poor air quality and why it occurs. Often these engineers will develop instruments such as a low-cost air quality monitor that was devised by engineers at the University of Colorado Boulder. As problem solvers, air quality engineers think of original ways to solve pollution issues that regular air quality specialists might not think of.

Here are some of the facts that air quality engineers learn before going out in the field to help both the government and private sector improve the air safety of the environment.

What is the Exact Definition of Air Quality?

Our air is made up of several different elements with some of them quite toxic even in small quantities. These are Nitrogen – 78%, oxygen-21% and the remaining 1% area called trace gases such as carbon monoxide and argon. We never want a dangerous gas such as carbon monoxide to increase pushing out the oxygen that is needed to breath easily. This 1% gas group is what air quality engineers’ study. When reading this statistic for the first time it’s hard to understand that the important concern is with 1% of the gasses.

Another important idea in the different kinds of air pollution is the distinction between primary and secondary emissions. You can recognize a primary emission quite easily when you smell and cough from smoke coming out of a car’s tailpipe and get quite annoyed that the driver is polluting the air. However, secondary emissions are in the atmosphere, and they can be odorless yet dangerous since they are not easily discernible. This is where air quality engineers come into play and one of their important jobs is to monitor the atmospheric chemistry. Some harmful pollutants need several components to be triggered, such as ground-level ozone. This is also known as tropospheric ozone and requires sunlight to be activated. As much as we love the sun to shine, the combination of the two is detrimental to our health.

How to Measure Air Quality

Different pollutants have different attributes, and this makes it possible for an air quality engineer to figure out how to reduce these emissions. By catching aerosols or particulates in specific types of filters, engineers can then analyze them. These particles differ in size which makes it possible for them to be separated and analyzed. Even invisible matter such as gases have specific features that can be measured for their absorbency. Certain gases will absorb specific light wavelengths, and this gives the engineer accurate measurements of the pollutants in order to set the regulations that will protect people from harmful gases. It may not yet be possible to have a perfect score of total elimination of pollutants but setting safer standards is certainly a step in the right direction.

Students studying the field of air quality engineering are encouraged to make use of labs with actual appliances and machinery to practice and learn from. For example, an instructor will explain the differences between two actual home cooking stoves, a traditional and an induction cooktop. A traditional stove will use gas as its energy while an induction cooktop will use small amounts of electricity and heat up quite quickly. This method of learning is called Study Design for Air Quality Research.

Another study research tool is called, Understanding the Air Through Data Analysiswhere students learn how to monitor air quality with a specific activity. They can compare barbequing with coal, gas, and electricity. This type of analysis includes air pollution control technologies in the auto Industry. Fossil fuels are still being used in the auto industry since batteries have still not taken over. Cars that are called hybrids can take advantage of both battery and regular car fuel to increase efficiency and cut down on emissions. However, fully battery charged cars still do not have the capacity to go on very long trips without recharging, therefore modernizations such as catalytic converters make it possible to keep using fossil fuels and still have satisfactory monitoring within an acceptable air quality range.

How are Air Quality Engineers Trained?

The first requirement to qualify to become an air quality engineer is the desire to help clean up the environment whether indoors in private homes or factories and outdoors in large venues such as highways and tunnels. While earning a nice salary you will be helping to improve the world’s environment.

The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that the median salary of air quality and environmental engineers is between $82,000 – $96,000 roughly. The BLS gauges that there will be a 4% growth in this field between 2021 and 2031. The state governments will be needing these professionals because of the regulations to promote cleaner water and air. Also developing patents for air quality monitoring devices will enhance the salary substantially. So research in this industry is a promising field as well.

Firstly, the candidate needs to complete his BA in college and receive a Master of Science in Engineering. Important too, is hands-on experience as interns who practice in an artificially controlled climate. There are several types of positions available for air quality engineering.

1Analysts of Air Quality: these engineers measure and assess air quality standards in different venues from industrial to personal to make sure that the air quality conforms with federal, state, and local environmental laws.

2Government Air Quality Engineers: find solutions for improvement of air quality by being employed by the government.

3Air Quality Programmers: develop and use computer programs to anticipate how specific contaminants affect specific geographic areas. For example, if there is a train wreck or fire in a specific town, these programs can help predict how harmful the gases and chemicals coming from disaster will harm the community that’s impacted.

Final Words

We all want cleaner, purer air inside and outside our homes and businesses. However, how much are we willing to sacrifice to improve the air we breathe? Bad air causes sickness, soot and clouds when the day should be sunny. There are some individuals who want to change and improve the air quality around us and make a good living at the same time. Clean air is quite hard to maintain, and it is a constant struggle. A community may have a mayor or governor who is very devoted to clean air and has successfully boosted the statistics in their town when a fire or factory explosion can put their environment in jeopardy.

How much damage has the disaster incurred on the community? This is one of the tasks of an air quality engineer who will be able to monitor and measure exactly what the damage is and through computer software predict how long it will take to have the air clean again. By measuring pollution levels an air quality engineer will be able to formulate options to keep the air we breathe within a safe range. These ranges change quite often by the government who is constantly upping the measurement of clean air. Even though we are not at the point of giving up on filling up at the pump, techniques such as catalytic converters can keep the air in good shape while still using regular gas in vehicles. This is but one example of how air quality engineers can improve the environment and still allow citizens to use their vehicles freely.

We have shown a few examples of the importance of air quality engineers today and since clean air is one of the main challenges today, they play such an important role by checking, evaluating and then finding good solutions to so many air quality issues. Some of us can notice when there is something wrong with the air quality when we actually see smoke coming out of a chimney that is black or a backfiring car but other invisible threats to the atmosphere are improving because we have capable air quality engineers.

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