Berkeley Lab researchers measure black carbon in West Oakland

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In collaboration with UC Berkeley, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developed a network of about 100 air quality sensors that measured black carbon in and around West Oakland, according to a Berkeley Lab press release. 

Led by Thomas Kirchstetter, director of the Energy Analysis and Environmental Impacts Division at Berkeley Lab and a UC Berkeley adjunct professor, the multiyear project aimed to explore new ways to measure air pollution using low-cost sensors and study black carbon’s effects on human health and the environment. 

Black carbon, commonly referred to as soot, is an air pollutant produced by the incomplete combustion of fuels emitted from large vehicles. According to Kirchstetter, West Oakland holds a high concentration of black carbon as a result of its proximity to the Port of Oakland and the high number of vehicles from nearby highways that travel through the area. As a climate pollutant, black carbon contributes to global warming and is strongly linked to adverse health effects, according to Kirchstetter. 

According to Kirchstetter, the team of researchers created the largest black carbon monitoring network in any single area, as they deployed more than 100 sensors across West Oakland for 100 days. The majority of sensors were hosted by residents or commercial businesses, a recruitment process made possible as a result of Kirchstetter’s partnership with the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, a local environmental justice group, according to Kirchstetter. 

Kirchstetter also mentioned that his team’s collaboration with the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project allowed them to share results from their project directly with the community.

“We were able to provide the local community information that they wanted, which was data. They have long been concerned about their exposure to air pollutants. They know where air pollution sources are because they live there, but they didn’t have a sufficient amount of data which they could use to show stakeholders or state planners … or folks who plan housing or truck routing,” Kirchstetter said.

According to Kirchstetter, his team’s research demonstrated that concentrations of black carbon changed dramatically over short distances, depending on the proximity to fuel sources. 

Kirchstetter mentioned that the highest concentrations of black carbon existed nearest to sources, such as ports and highways. 

“With the data, we could make good statements about how much black carbon concentrations vary over time … but more importantly, how black carbon concentrations vary in space. … They were highest, of course, near sources, which generally is attributable to truck activity,” Kirchstetter said.

According to Corinne Scown, a staff scientist at Berkeley Lab and an assistant professional researcher at UC Berkeley, measuring the effects of black carbon as a type of particulate matter and its effects on human health could broaden the implications of air quality research.

Currently, researchers from UC Berkeley, the University of Washington and the University of Texas at Austin’s Apte Research Group are utilizing the information to explore other methods of analyzing air pollution, according to Kirchstetter.

“Measuring concentrations (of particulate matter) brings the broader research community closer to better understanding the biggest contributors to poor air quality, and perhaps even prioritizing solutions based on what might have the biggest benefits,” Scown said in an email.

Contact Sydney Hilbush at [email protected].