Reporter 435, 26 April 1999

Clean air secrets are blowin' in the wind (and somewhere on the M1)

A homeless team of chemistry researchers are anxiously scanning the roads this week - awaiting the return of the most unusual laboratory in the University. The ten-ton portable lab is arriving home after a six-week voyage from Tasmania, where the research team used it to study 'the cleanest air in the world'.

The team was down under to hunt a chemical helping the atmosphere rid itself of man-made pollutants. With a life-span of less than a second the helpful hydroxyl (OH) radical is an elusive target, but finding it could help predict how breathable our air will be in the next century.

To locate it, the researchers have built a unique instrument. Based inside a shipping container, the equipment is sensitive, self-contained and - most importantly of all - portable.

"The OH radical plays a vital role in regulating levels of gases such as methane in the air we breathe," said research team leader Dwayne Heard. "But to get a clear picture of just how effective this self-cleansing process is we needed to sample air free from pollutants, hence Tasmania."

Arriving fresh from Antarctica, the team's measurements showed their predictions of OH levels in pure air were accurate. Dr Heard said this was a vital result as complex predictions of atmospheric pollution in the future - for example those including car emissions - needed it as a foundation.

"The chemistry of OH is inextricably linked to virtually every trace species in the atmosphere. Knowing we have the basic chemistry correct means much greater faith can be placed in models predicting how future human activity will affect the atmosphere."

The team became something of a media sensation during their trip. Their work made the local papers and the research was even featured on Australian national television. "I don't think they could believe that we had come half way around the world to sit inside a metal shipping container all day," said researcher Dave Creasey.

"But we're used to it and as soon as it arrives back then we'll be back inside."

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