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New Mexico State University

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Dust emission research may lead to reduction of air pollutants

Farmers and developers will be able to reduce the amount of dust emitted during their daily operations thanks to a computer model created by a team of researchers that includes three New Mexico State University staff and faculty members.

During a 2008 dust emissions study, a research team used one tractor to measure dust emissions while another tractor tilled the field at New Mexico State University's Leyendecker Plant Science Center. The study generated the data used to create a computer model that farmers and developers can utilize to cut down on dust emissions during their operations, in turn reducing air pollutants. (Courtesy photo by David Miller)

With the model, known as a Lagrangian model, farmers and developers would be able to create different scenarios to find out how much dust would be emitted during a certain situation. The plan of operation emitting the least amount of dust could then be followed, minimizing additions to air pollution and health impacts.

Data for the model was acquired during an April 2008 study conducted by David Miller, NMSU adjunct professor and professor emeritus of the University of Connecticut; Theodore Sammis, NMSU professor and co-principle investigator; Junming Wang, NMSU Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences science specialist; April Hiscox, of Louisiana State University; and Britt Holmen, of the University of Vermont.

"We hope our current studies will lead to the research and development of 'precision' agriculture technology to reduce toxic air pollutants," Miller said.

During the study, the researchers measured the amount of dust entering the air during the disking and harvesting of a cotton field at the Leyendecker Plant Science Center, located south of Las Cruces. One tractor tilled the field, while another tractor carried sampling instruments and measured the concentration of dust emitted as the first tractor tilled. A Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) system also was set up to give a reading on the dust plumes.

LIDAR is a laser radar comprised of a telescope and a high-energy laser. Set in a specific location, the machine can move its laser horizontally and vertically, receiving a reading on anything it detects.

Data analysis and visualization software was then used to combine all of the information taken by LIDAR and give the researchers a three-dimensional, minute-by-minute grid view of the field and the dust plumes.

The model allows for the prediction of how much dust is generated, and also when and where it is generated. Factors contributing to the amount of dust, where it goes and how high it goes, including soil characteristics, time of day, weather conditions and equipment used, were placed in the model to allow for the creation of different scenarios.

With this information, the amount of dust exposure people experience when in different locations and different distances away from the field can be calculated. These numbers can then be compared to health standards.

The model also will be used as a training tool for students, educators and public health officials. It will be available at the end of 2009 on NMSU's climate center Web site, http://weather.nmsu.edu/.

The team would like to make the model practical so it can be used for a variety of purposes. It has many potential uses, such as tracing pollutant vapors, airborne bacteria and viruses for public health and homeland security purposes.

The team also is adapting the model to predict the movement and deposition of pesticide sprays used for mosquito and insect control. Dust samples taken during the study are being analyzed by the University of Vermont for these residues.

"There are theories that pesticides attached to agriculture dust are a large source of toxics in the air," Miller said. "We are researching to determine if these theories are true and how much pollution might be involved."

This study was a continuation of a study conducted in 2005. Next year, researchers will look at the dust emissions from feedlots in the Texas panhandle.