Editor’s note: The Lab Report is a weekly series in The Badger Herald’s print edition where we take a deep dive into the (research) lives of students and professors outside the classroom.

Despite being smaller than the eye can see, tiny particles in the air we breathe can have a big impact on our health and the environment.

The Bertram Research Group in the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Chemistry studies how these compounds cause air quality issues with important health and climate implications.

UW Professor Tim Bertram and his group study applications of atmospheric chemistry in both local and remote locations — including on the raging ocean. 

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UW graduate student Delaney Kilgour chose the Bertram Group for her research due to its applications to society. Everything the group works on feels relevant to her — a trait she felt other areas of chemistry seemed to lack.

Kilgour conducts experiments in collaboration with the National Science Foundation Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment and the University of California, San Diego. Currently, she is focusing on gas phase emissions of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, over the ocean, where not a lot is known about their climate impacts.

“We know a lot about a few gasses, but if you just take those gasses that we know about, it’s not enough to be able to explain things like cloud formation over the ocean, so it points to a missing source of VOC,” Kilgour said.

These VOCs can form from biological systems in the ocean like phytoplankton or bacteria, or from gas-liquid reactions occurring at the ocean’s surface. Kilgour said VOCs are important because once emitted into the atmosphere they can react further, condense into a particle, uptake water and form a cloud.

Kilgour compares the VOC production of blank seawater samples to samples with a reactive component to see what VOCs are produced from the natural ecosystem of the sea water.

“This work should enable us to get a more complete suite of VOC production over the ocean,” Kilgour said. “It’s just not known right now. We know [VOC production] could happen, but we don’t know the magnitude and we don’t know the molecules that are actually being produced.”

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Kilgour’s studies contribute to the broader atmospheric chemistry goals of the group as a whole.

Bertram said VOCs can react in the atmosphere to form ozone, a harmful chemical in the atmosphere.

Ozone is a strong oxidant, Bertram said, so it’s a lung irritant that could impact the respiratory health of young people, the elderly or those with respiratory issues. Similarly, small particulate matter in the air, called aerosols, can also affect respiratory health and even smaller aerosols may have even more health impacts that are currently unknown.

The Bertram group takes this understanding to the broader context of air quality while working locally to study the air quality along the coast of Lake Michigan, where there is an ozone exceedance in the summer. Bertram said other areas with air quality issues  in Wisconsin include Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Door County.

“Every one cares about the air that they breathe in their own state or in their own city,” Bertram said.

Seeking answers to questions regarding these air quality issues, the Bertram Group takes to the field to measure compounds in the air that are precursors to ozone as well as oxidation products of ozone.

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In a project called the Lake Michigan Ozone Study, the group collaborated with regional scale atmospheric modelers and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 

“Our role in this is to make direct these measurements that can be used to constrain a regional model that tries to predict when you would have these events,” Bertram said. “That’s the ultimate tool because you can change emissions in those models to see what you would do to mitigate the problem.”

Most of the work involved in the Bertram Group pertains to outdoor air quality, but they opened their scope of research to study how outdoor and indoor air quality are intertwined.

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Bertram said that most indoor air systems operate under the assumption that the air quality is worse indoors than it is outdoors, so rapid ventilation is important to maintain good indoor air. But, some regional air quality events, forest fires, dramatically impact outdoor air quality, making it worse than the air inside.

When these events occur, an HVAC system that can respond to them would help maintain indoor air quality and keep pollutants out of buildings.

“I think we’ve demonstrated the hard part of atmospheric chemistry and it’s really now in the hands of the engineers of whether or not this is a marketable enough product that folks might want to invest in,” Bertram said.

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Keeping the air we breathe clean and getting to the bottom of what affects it is an area of science that will continue to impact the daily lives of people locally and globally.

Kilgour is passionate about environmental chemistry and plans on continuing to spend her time at UW learning about atmospheric chemistry and its important applications to society.

“Everything we do in this group, it just feels relevant. Even though I don’t specifically work on air quality, just being a part of this group and being in the atmospheric chemistry community, I’ve learned so much it’s so impactful to your daily life,” Kilgour said.