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Air pollution contributed to an estimated seven million deaths worldwide in 2012, making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk, according to the UN World Health Organization. Today there are some 120 air quality reference stations in the UK that collect information on everything from fugitive emissions from industrial plants to fumes from jet engines and idling buses.

While the technology is highly accurate, the high cost to build and install the stations (as much as £200k) means there are relatively few deployed, offering municipalities a limited picture of urban air quality. A new air quality monitoring system designed with the help of Professor Rod Jones of the University’s Department of Chemistry is both cost-effective and portable, and has the potential to vastly increase the number of monitors being used worldwide, changing the way we view the composition of the air we breathe.

Members of Cambridge Enterprise’s Physical Sciences team mentored Jones as he sought to commercialise his ideas, and helped him work with partners in industry to develop the innovative technology. The sensor systems, known as AQMesh and manufactured by Geotech, cost about £3–5k each. While traditional sensor stations rely on chemiluminescence, among other techniques, AQMesh uses electro-chemical cells developed by Alphasense, a sensor technology company, to measure NO, NO₂, O₃, CO and SO₂. The device captures data in intervals (from minutes to hours, depending on how it’s programmed), and sends it via the mobile phone network to a cloud server where the information is processed and offered to clients. AQMesh runs on a two-year battery and is ultralightweight compared to traditional sensor stations. It can be mounted on a fence or lamppost, and moved any time, allowing air quality to be monitored almost anywhere.

Photo credit: Blue Pacific, by Evan Leeson via Flickr