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BYU researcher working to predict pollution caused by wildfire smoke

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has endured a lot of smoky sky Utah this summer, and the last few weeks have been especially bad in many neighborhoods. Fortunately, researchers are working to better predict the pollution caused by smoke from wildfires.

A Brigham Young University researcher has a personal reason to be motivated in his work on wildfire smoke.

“It really impacts people’s lives,” said David Lignell, an associate professor of chemical engineering at BYU, especially this summer.

“You can feel that smoke,” he said. “You can smell the smoke. It’s gotten that bad.”

Lignell is focused on the formation and concentration of soot and smoke at the source of the fire, and the size of the particles.

“Not so much where it’s going, but how much is formed in the first place,” he said.

Smoke and soot are formed in wildfires in the flame zones as the burning wood gives off gases. The wind carries the smoke into our weather patterns, and it later collects in our valleys.

Lignell has collaborated with BYU doctoral student, Alex Josephson, who is working out of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. They developed a model to better forecast smoke and soot emissions from wildfires, and published their work recently in the academic journal Combustion and Flame. The research, sponsored by the USDA Forest Service and the Department of Energy, can impact our health and our environment.

“Ultimately, you’d like to be able to be able to predict the concentrations of particle sizes and chemistry of the soot in that smoke,” he said.

That’s a difficult process they’re still working on.

“Those kinds of things are what you want to know for understanding what the impacts are going to be,” he said.

And they want to know how long smoke will last in the atmosphere, which impacts our health, and his, especially.

“I’ve suffered from asthma all of my life,” said Lignell, who grew up in Salt Lake County. “I feel it, and I take it personally when we have the kind of poor air quality that we do.”

Researchers have little control over what happens in the fires.

“But, if we can understand what the concentrations are and predict those, we might be able to give people warnings,” he said. “We might be able to help them to make decisions on what their activities will be.”

Lignell said their work is a small piece in a larger puzzle.

“A lot of researchers’ work goes into trying to move forward the state of the art in what can be done,” he said. It’s a complicated process, and their actual models are math computations, undecipherable by most of us. “If we can develop models that are more accurate and can be applied to a broader range of fire conditions, and a broader range of fuels, then we have better inputs for understanding what’s happening for downstream processes,” said Lignell.

Right now, they’re working to improve the accuracy of their model. If their models provide a better understanding of how much smoke and soot is being generated at the source of the fire, other researchers can better understand what is happening with that smoke once it’s in the wind.

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Jed Boal


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