Greek Professors Measure Auto Pollutants, Particle by Particle

FILE - People sit and walk on the steps of central Syntagma Square in front of the Greek Parliament, in Athens, on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

The air across Athens and other European cities isn’t thick with smog but it still contains uncountable numbers of pollutants that researchers at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki are trying to count as part of a European research project called DOWNTOTEN.

Professor Zissis Samaras, Director of the Lab of Applied Thermodynamics at the university, who is the project coordinator, said the team is looking at particles below 23 nanometers in diameter that can get deep inside the lungs and enter the bloodstream.

In the air these particles react with other compounds. Harmful substances can attach themselves to the nanoparticles aggravating heart and lung conditions.

“As living creatures, we’re suffering from the consequences of these chain of reaction. So what we’re working on here is to try to better understand it. We are collecting the necessary data to assess the technologies and the fuels we use, as well as their effects on human, and non-human, health,” he told euronews.

Every breath we take pulls in lungsful of tiny particles poisoned by car engine emissions that can’t be seen but contribute to a creeping death toll with as many as half a million people in the European Union dying prematurely annually because of air pollution.

Heavy traffic in center cities is getting worse with more vehicles trying to use the same places where roads and lanes can’t be added, with idling cars poisoning the air and many cities, such as Athens, not allowing right turns on red, leaving cars to sit needlessly waiting for light changes.

Toxic particles emitted by car engines are part of the problem. While new fuel-efficient vehicles produce less CO2, they also pump out more nanoparticles that are too tiny to count.

“Some of these cars, especially the diesel ones, and of course motorcycles, are very heavy polluters. They can emit very large quantities of extremely tiny particles — so tiny that they cannot be measured with existing tools and methods, so, for this reason, they aren’t covered by the current regulations,” Samaras told the site.

For experiments, researchers connect the test car’s exhaust pipe to instruments which measure ultra-fine particles. The same process that takes hours and days in the atmosphere is accelerated inside this system. In parallel, the reactions are simulated in computer models.

“The knowledge obtained from the experiments is quite limited. But the digital models provide much higher precision in terms of measurements. We can use that to further improve the experiments and to better understand the process,” said Ananias Tomboulides, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the university.

Since car emissions can only be studied outside in the air where they are emitted a system to measure them was designed to fit inside a car. The test vehicle can leave the research facility and drive around the city, recording emissions in traffic.

“As soon as I restart the engine and step on the throttle, as I’m doing right now, we see a big spike here in red, which shows the detected emissions,” said Zisimos Toumasatos, a university mechanical engineer said.

The next step is to bring the technology to the market with researchers telling the site they hope car makers will use their device to develop better engines which emit fewer nanoparticles although the industry is notorious for rejecting ideas that are costly even if beneficial, although they could face tougher EU regulations otherwise.

“The goal is, for the internal combustion engine to become a zero-emission machine. That’s the only possibility for them to keep playing the role they’re playing now… Otherwise, we’ll have to get rid of them completely — we’ll have to replace internal combustion engines with other engine types,” Samaras said, as major companies such as GM move toward only electric cars.