Continued Development and Uncertainties with Next-Generation Air Quality Sensors

EM—A look at next-generation air quality sensors—typically smaller, more portable, and lower cost in contrast to more expensive traditional monitoring equipment—increasingly being used for regulatory and research applications.

by John Kinsman

A look at next-generation air quality sensors, which exhibit characteristics such as being smaller, portable, and lower cost, in contrast to more expensive traditional monitoring equipment, now used for regulatory and research applications. This important topic previously has been the central theme of EM issues in January 2014, August 2014, and November 2016.

There are many potential applications for small, low-cost sensors, including activities that do not necessarily require the highest quality data—such as community engagement, education, condition indicator, research, and management. On the other hand, next-generation sensors must deliver very high-quality data if they are to support regulatory decisions, regulatory standard setting, and enforcement actions.

The quality of measurements by next-generation air sensors is increasing but inconsistent, as affirmed in evaluations of the technologies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA; through its Citizen Science Toolbox) and state groups (e.g., South Coast Air Quality Management District).

In their 2016 EM article “Advanced Monitoring Technology: Opportunities and Challenges,” Hindin et al. discuss the “E-Enterprise for the Environment” effort of EPA, state, and tribal agencies to address the challenges and opportunities presented by rapidly changing monitoring technology. The authors state that uncertainties about the quality of these devices and the interpretation of the data they generate are limiting their impact.

In their 2014 EM article “Cost Air Pollution Sensor Data Performance,” Robert Judge and Chet Wayland observe that: “It is vitally important to understand the quality of the data collected, because the consequences of collecting poor quality data can be significant. … Because this data will be used to make decisions that may have far-reaching health and cost implications for the public or affected sources, EPA established data quality objectives for quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC) of air monitoring data to ensure that the quality of the data supports using it to make agency decisions.”

In this issue of EM, authors from the federal government (EPA), states (Association of Air Pollution Control Agencies; AAPCA), and an industry research organization (Electric Power Research Institute; EPRI) discuss the uses, progress, and challenges of next-generation sensors. A companion article by Oak Ridge Institute for Sciences and Education and EPA discusses the design of custom sensor “pods” collecting sensors into a single unit to maximize ease of operation in community settings.