Air Sensor Technologies: “Miniaturizing” air quality monitoring
Article adapted from interview with Dr. Gayle Hagler of United States Environmental Protection Agency
Addressing air quality concerns begins with understanding the concentrations in the air that we breathe.
In Hong Kong, the increased understanding of the risks associated with poor air quality has rallied the efforts of local and regional institutions alike, and has led to exploring technologies that can provide a better and more accurate picture of air quality in the region.
The forward direction of the technology surrounding air quality monitoring, in some way, could be attributed to the growing need to fill knowledge gaps in air concentrations picked up by traditional air monitoring stations.
While the stations have been able to provide reliable and accurate information on air quality to compare with regulatory standards – thanks to the availability of dedicated equipment and trained monitoring specialists – there are only a few stations covering a large expanse of populated cities and communities across Hong Kong. Setting up these stations to account all of these areas and return real-time air quality results, thus, would require equally multiple cost and efforts.
Filling in the gaps and going mobile
The interest in a more holistic picture of air quality within and across various areas in Hong Kong is encouraging the development of air sensor technologies, which are designed to pick up air pollution concentrations in places that, otherwise, would not be reached by air monitoring stations.
It makes sense to envision these new technologies closer to the individual as they can provide more accurate feedback on the quality of air that the person is actually breathing in at any given moment—whether they are indoors or outdoors.
Designing sensors that are wearable or portable enough to be carried around or be placed onto infrastructures to activate a network of air quality data likewise supports the concept of a smart city design. However, adopting these technologies would entail cost and research.
Integrated and involving of the community
More and more people and institutions are using these types of technologies worldwide. From what used to be a government initiative, air monitoring is now being practiced by citizen scientists (individuals who just want to measure their own exposure), academic groups, and the private sector. The challenge, thus, is how to achieve data accuracy across these diverse environments and circumstances.
In Hong Kong, bringing air quality monitoring to the consumers, in the form of sensors, requires further study to support its objective and data output against the conventional high-cost yet time-tested monitoring stations dispersed around Hong Kong.
These air sensor technologies, furthermore, call for more work on making them more accessible to consumers in the region, in terms of price points.
Turning data into personalized actions
It is important to note that while the technology is rapidly developing, a big area attracting study revolves around the means to communicate data and using it to help individuals make everyday decisions.
Prototype sensors have so far been developed in various universities in Hong Kong, and deployed for exposure research or installed onto vehicles around the city, with an intent to figure out how to communicate these kinds of collected data to the public.
These “miniaturized” air sensors offer a great opportunity to fully empower the Hong Kong community in taking part towards cleaner air. We do not see our traditional monitoring stations going away as they are integral to the air quality developments Hong Kong has so far achieved. But we can expect to see much more research to be conducted around perfecting an integrated system of air sensor technologies. Meantime, Hong Kong will continue to learn from relevant practices in the region, as well as internationally, and vice-versa.