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Feb 18, 2019
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Professor Athanasios Alexander (right) organized the dust tunnel research project. He is aided by Professor Diganta Adhikari (left), Patrick Barns (center). Their findings will contribute to solving the problem of Valley dust pollution. Photo by Roe Borunda / The Collegian

Dust Tunnel machine a key to pollution research

Professors and students at Fresno State are creating a dust tunnel device to research whether mist can reduce harmful particles in the air. 

Professor Athanasios Alexander (right) organized the dust tunnel research project. He is aided by Professor Diganta Adhikari (left), Patrick Barns (center). Their findings will contribute to solving the problem of Valley dust pollution. Photo by Roe Borunda / The Collegian

Professor Athanasios Alexander (right) organized the dust tunnel research project. He is aided by Professor Diganta Adhikari (left), Patrick Barns (center). Their findings will contribute to solving the problem of Valley dust pollution.
Photo by Roe Borunda / The Collegian

Studies show the smaller the particle is, the more likely it is to enter the body and cause damage to the lungs or heart. Fresno State professors Athanasios Alexandrou , Diganta Adhikari and Patrick Barnes plan to test microscopic dust particles to see if mist will have any effect on how far these particles can travel.

“Particulate matter is small particles that are what we call dust,” Alexandrou said.

Research shows that when humans inhale these small particles, they travel through the respiratory system and end up in the airways or lungs. Once the particles reach our lungs the body cannot remove them.

“Our lungs, for most solid particles that go inside, it’s one way traffic. It goes in and it stays in,” Adhikari said.

The Fresno State study will focus on the smaller particles that are monitored and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resource Board. The San Joaquin Valley has one of the highest concentrations of these particulates in California.

“A plan has been introduced to control the PM (particulate matter) 2.5 emissions. This project is only a small part of efforts that researchers, private companies and public agencies do to find solutions to the air pollution problem,”Alexandrou said.

Studies suggest smaller dust particles may travel much farther in distance, possibly affecting more people. The nose aides in the filtering process to protect the body from exposure to unwanted elements, however, studies show finer matter has a better chance of overcoming the body’s natural defenses.

Professors working on this study believe the cool air from the mist may drive the dust particles down to prevent them from traveling as far.

“It’s basically the opposite of the hot air balloon, when people take a ride on a hot air balloon, the hot air makes the balloon rise,” Adhikari said. “If you are in a restaurant with misters, you feel nice and cool. The idea is we cool the dust with the mist so that it does the opposite. If it’s cooler it’s going to sink,”

Alexandrou, Adikari and Barnes have experimented with this theory at the Fresno State farm using tractors. They have attached misters to a disk and measured the output of the particulate matter while the disk was cultivating the soil. They have seen some positive results but to have anything conclusive they need to perform the experiment in a controlled environment.

“By the time we do a mist on and a mist off and set up our equipment, the wind shifts or the temperature shifts. The whole dynamic changes,”Adikari said.

The dust tunnel allows them to set their own wind speed and mist droplet size to better evaluate how the dust will react in different climates.

“It’s just a theory in work. We are trying to control the natural climate,” Alexandrou said.

Modeled after a similar device at Texas A&M where they have conducted this study in the past, the dust tunnel is the first of its kind in this region.

“We initially used the wind tunnel there, came back and looked at the data. Everything was not conclusive, but we saw a lot of positive results so we decided to build one here,” Adikari said.

Alexandrou, Adikari, and Barnes believe the dust tunnel will be beneficial for other Fresno State departments needing this type of machine.

“I am very excited about finishing the tunnel because I feel that once it is able to produce the needed conditions, it will be a valuable resource not just for our lab but other researchers at the university and in the region,” Barnes said.

Though modeled after the Texas A&M wind tunnel, Alexandrou, Adikari and Barnes have decided to change a few aspects and enhance their tunnel to better fit their needs.

“Theirs worked perfect, but sometimes you would need two people, and you would have to yell across the room, ‘Hey could you flip that,’ ” Adikari said. “We would like to convert everything into a laptop for controls. We have the blue print of what we want and have asked a student to see if he can take this on as a master student project.”

They have involved several students at Fresno State in the process of building the dust tunnel.

“We had a great group of students out there every day when we were putting the chambers together. Everyone worked hard, and it helped to joke around every now and then to lighten things up,” Barnes said. “Though it was hard at times, it was very rewarding to see it all come together.”

The majority of the dust tunnel is intact, and the professors hope to have it running by next month. Alexandrou — leader of the project — feels students should be aware and knowledgeable of projects like the one he is conducting.

“A student with a basic knowledge of the issue will be better equipped to understand the subject that may face in the not so far future,” Alexandrou said. “Air pollution is connected to climate change, a topic which is discussed and will be discussed in the near future.”

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