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Apr 262010

From Green Right Now Reports

If you’ve ever experienced the joy of being stuck in traffic behind a truck spewing out black exhaust, you are no stranger to soot – the airborne carbon particles resulting from the incomplete combustion of diesel fuel. Through no fault of your own, you have been exposed to pollutants that can remain in your body and eventually lead to lung cancer and other health issues.



How is this stuff formed and burned? What might be done to reduce the threat to both people and the planet? Peter Sunderland of the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering recently won a National Science Foundation Early Faculty Career Development Award for trying to figure out just that. The assistant professor of fire protection engineering produced research that might show designers how to build cleaner and more efficient engines.

Sunderland set out to separate two overlapping phases of soot production — formation and oxidation – to allow each to be more effectively analyzed and measured. To do so, he used a double-flame burner to study the chemical reactions that occur when soot oxidizes, or burns away.

“In a normal flame, like a candle, soot is formed low in the flame and burns off near the top,” he said. “However there is a lot of overlap, making it difficult to measure the formation and oxidation rates.

“In this double flame, the upper flame has only soot oxidation, so there is no such overlap and thus the oxidation rates can be measured more accurately.”

In some cases, soot isn’t such a bad thing. It lends the yellow color to a candle flame and it is processed into toner used in most printers. Unfortunately, it also accelerates fire growth and is a dangerous pollutant that contributes to climate change. Tiny soot particles can be assimilated into the lungs and bloodstream, leading to cardiovascular disease and lung cancer.

National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development awards support and honor teacher-scholars for integrating outstanding research and education. For more information, visit the NSF web site.