Rowland group tackles air quality after oil spill

When the Deepwater Horizon exploded in 2010, sending millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, most scientists were concerned about the damage to sea life.

Not many gave a whiff of thought to air quality.

The Rowland-Blake Group at UC Irvine was an exception. Student researchers from this group deployed to the gulf, rented a Forrest Gump-like boat and started analyzing air samples.

By measuring certain gases, they found that the air was dirtier than in Los Angeles or Mexico City. The group's findings even inspired a National Science Foundation team of researchers to divert their plane from a project in the Inland Empire to the gulf to check out the air for themselves.

This scientific foray was business as usual for members of the Rowland-Blake Group, named after UCI professors F. Sherwood Rowland,a Nobel Prize-winningscientist, and Donald R. Blake, chairman of the chemistry department.

Rowland died over the weekend in his Corona del Mar home at age 84.

The group has been isolating and quantifying various gases to measure their impact on the environment since 1976, but the range of projects has expanded and the research has become more rigorous, Blake said.

About 20 people are in the group, ranging from grad students to technicians to Ph.D.s.

"Our group is one of the few in the world that takes measurements that are then used by the modeling community to estimate future climate change," Blake said. "There are not many groups like us in the U.S."


Scope of projects

The group's research is based on air sample canisters from around the world. Some of these canisters are placed on airplane wings, some on boats.

One area of recent, significant research is methane, the topic of Blake's thesis and a greenhouse gas that can cause urban smog.

"I never thought when we started running samples in 1979 that it would be as important as it is now," he said.

Members of the group, including Blake, will be flying on two NASA projects later this year: one based in Kansas and one in Thailand. Data obtained from the Kansas project — which includes atmospheric observations in Colorado, Oklahoma and Alabama — will provide insight into the upper troposphere, where ozone is active as a greenhouse gas.

The purpose of the Thailand project is to examine the effect of emissions in Asia on clouds, climate and air quality.

The group has been studying the air in China as well.

"Everyone is downwind of someone there," Blake said.

China is trying to improve its air quality by adding catalytic converters to reduce emissions, Blake said.

"They're studying [the issue of air quality] and trying to learn how not to make certain mistakes we made in California in the 1950s and '60s," he said.


The study of human breath

While atmospheric research has been the Rowland-Blake Group's focus since it started about 10 years ago, the group was approached about conducting breath analysis.

Using the same machines used for atmospheric research, the group began studying patients with conditions like diabetes, autism and leukemia.

The machines are able to detect low concentrations of gases, Blake said.

The intent is to find certain gases in the patients' breath specific to their conditions. If successful, these machines could be used to test for recurrence of these conditions.

"If [a patient] can blow into [this machine], instead of having a blood test, it would be less invasive," Blake said.

Federal stimulus funds enabled this research to take place, Blake said.

Obtaining funding for atmospheric research, however, has gotten more challenging in the last 12 years, Blake said.


Global warming controversy rages on

This paragraph has been corrected to say that Mario Molina is Rowland's postdoctoral colleague.

While the controversy over global warming first started even before the publishing of the paper that would garner the Nobel Prize to Rowland, Paul Crutzen and Rowland's postdoctoral colleague, Mario Molina, it has only gotten more heated.

"There are folks with an agenda and their whole goal is to put a halt to climate science," Blake said. "Oftentimes what they say is true, but it's taken out of context."

The ultimate loser is the planet itself, Blake said.

"The temperature is changing," Blake said. "Look at sea levels, the melting of the permafrost, the warming of the polar regions."

The main question at this point, Blake said, is if "we, as a world, start to conserve more, and stop emitting as much greenhouse gases as we are now, what will it do for us?"

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