Educational Partnership Showcases Air Quality Monitoring

At TCEQ, partnerships are a vital part of the agency and when it involves students, things get even better. For the second year in a row, TCEQ has participated in the TRACER-AQ field study working alongside students and professors at the University of Houston, Baylor University, and St. Edwards.

This is not the first time these partnerships have come about. Doug Boyer, technical specialist in the Air Quality Division, said TCEQ has been working with the University of Houston for several years.

“For our grants, each year we determine within the Air Quality Division where we feel research should be focused,” he said. “We’ve continued this grant with the University of Houston for a long time. They do ground-based monitoring, surface stations like TCEQ operates, but they operate them in other places throughout the Houston area.”

One great benefit of the contracts, grants, and partnerships with the universities is that over time TCEQ has continued to help support them, develop their expertise, and bring students into the research. They get the chance to take measurements and work alongside the experts.

“This is like a continued pathway of knowledge that is coming into the state, into TCEQ, providing us with results and knowledge that can help us inform our air quality management decisions,” Boyer said.

He noted the idea behind TRACER-AQ (Tracking Aerosol Convection Interactions Experiment – Air Quality) is to continue to improve the understanding of ozone and particulate matter formation in the Houston area.

“The universities can do monitoring in places where we don’t have TCEQ or other partner’s surface, ground-base monitoring. We use the universities’ unique platforms,” he said. “They have mobile air quality labs, balloons, a drone, and a pontoon boat that was out in Galveston Bay.”

Along with that, the universities were able to instrument commercial service boats that go out into the Gulf of Mexico. This allows them to take passive measurements while the boats are out doing their jobs.

“We didn’t previously have any measurements to understand what is going on offshore. In the coastal areas of Texas you have a land-sea breeze effect where pollutants may blow offshore overnight and early in the morning but come back onshore during the day,” Boyer said.

University of Houston Professor Jimmy Flynn, Ph.D., said the unique part about the study is that they can leverage the TRACER project.

“This air quality focus study we did the last couple of years, we are leveraging all of those extensive measurements,” he said. “What a lot of these laboratories allow us to do is go in and collect data near the sources, and also collect data in areas that aren’t monitored otherwise.”

This allows them to have a better idea and understanding of the causes of ozone and particulate matter events.

“Our ultimate goal is to help provide the decision makers the best scientific data we can so whatever decisions they know they have to make, they’re reassured that it’s rooted in sound science that can help drive those policies,” he said.

In a recent presentation held at TCEQ headquarters in Austin (see video below), University of Houston student Alex Ulinski was the drone pilot. As she prepared the drone, she explained the purpose and how the use of the drone is different than the weather balloon or other air monitors.

“It really gives you a perspective you don’t get with the other measurements. A tower is stationary, a balloon goes through at 5 meters per second and within 30 seconds that whole stretch that I flew in would be over,” she said. “We get continuous measurements which can allow us to have a different perspective than we would normally get.”

These partnerships will continue on through 2023. Boyer said there is a similar project coming on the horizon that will be supporting a campaign with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

As part of the current grant, the data has to be complied into reports to show the results and conclusions of the work the universities have done. The final report will be published on TCEQ’s website with the other air quality research and contract project reports.