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In this blog by John Wenger, we learn more about research projects, including the RADICAL project, underway in the Irish Atmospheric Simulation Chamber.

By John Wenger, Professor in Physical and Environmental Chemistry, School of Chemistry, UCC

The RADICAL team consists of experts in nanomaterials, physical chemistry and atmospheric chemistry collaborating to build an entirely new air sensing platform that leverages nanotechnology to electrically detect radicals in the atmosphere. As proof of principle studies have been completed, the next step is testing, optimising and validating the sensor in real-world conditions and this is where my work in atmospheric chemistry comes to the fore.

Two members of RADICAL, myself and Dr Stig Hellebust, are based in the Centre for Research in Atmospheric Chemistry (CRAC) at University College Cork in Ireland. One of the aims of CRAC is to improve atmospheric chemistry research capacity in Ireland by building research infrastructure which can be used in a versatile way to address outstanding questions related to air quality climate and the environment.

CRAC has therefore developed the Irish Atmospheric Simulation Chamber (IASC) to study the atmosphere under controllable conditions. We carry out experiments to simulate the chemistry of the real atmosphere, and in particular focus on reactions involving hydroxyl and nitrate radicals that influence air quality and climate change. Our work in Ireland’s only advanced atmospheric simulation chamber also looks to expand the type and range of species detectable by the RADICAL sensor.


In Ireland, air quality monitoring, reporting and compliance is managed by the Environmental Protection Agency. A network of monitoring stations gather real world air quality data across Ireland, for reference and reporting.

Here in Cork, where part of the RADICAL project team is based, the city has 6 monitoring stations in the national network. With a low population density and surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish sea, air quality in Ireland is typically good. However, winter smog and inversions tend to be the challenge here, alongside a few unique conditions that emerge from maritime factors and agricultural emissions.

As part of the Life Emerald project, we validated an approach for measuring the local variation in air pollution across Cork city using a network of low-cost sensors producing more spatially resolved data than currently possible using the EPA network.

In addition to this, the team in CRAC is also pursuing a number of areas unique to atmospheric research in Ireland. We have a range of projects underway which leverage the IASC:

  1. Winter air pollution – Using a combination of field measurements and chamber studies, we have identified wood burning air pollutants and examined their specific atmospheric degradation processes to determine the secondary impacts of wood burning on local air quality.
  2. Sitka spruce emissions – The volatile organic compounds emitted by Sitka spruce, the most widely planted tree species in Ireland, have been determined and their reactions with the hydroxyl radical studied in IASC to assess the potential impact of large scale plantations on air quality and climate.  
  3. Agricultural emissions – Given the high level of farming in rural Ireland, our studies have focused on understanding the reaction between the hydroxyl radical, the main reactant in the atmosphere responsible for cleaning the air, with volatile chemicals emitted by animal slurry used in agriculture.
  4. New measurement techniques – IASC is a perfect testbed for the development of new techniques for measuring atmospheric species. In the AtmoTrace project – co-ordinated by UCC Professor Andy Ruth – CRAC researchers are working on new methods for measuring trace gases like nitrogen dioxide and nitrous acid, as well as new spectroscopy methods for quantifying hydroxyl and nitrate radicals.

Much of the research underway in CRAC focuses on simulating real world chemistry and pushing the capacity of the IASC facility. In addition to delivering scientific outputs, this research will also inform government policy on measures to control emissions from various sectors to improve air quality and protect the environment.

It is envisaged the IASC in UCC will form part of a networked atmospheric research infrastructure in Europe, called ACTRIS.


The only atmospheric simulation chamber in Ireland, it is envisaged that the IASC in UCC will form part of a networked atmospheric research infrastructure in Europe, called ACTRIS. The ACTRIS network consists of measurement sites or observational platforms, alongside exploratory platforms such as the IASC which enable not just data gathering but experimentation to improve our understanding of atmospheric chemistry.

Our closest colleagues include researchers at the Julich SAPHIR chamber which is a world-leading site for radical research in Europe. We are currently participating in the ATMO ACCESS project which allows us to provide free transnational access to the IASC facility for researchers from academia and industry. We have hosted research visitors from France, Germany, Japan and India in recent years and continue to seek collaborations both within and outside the global atmospheric science community.

Atmospheric chemistry is a growing area of research which has taken on new relevance in the era of climate change. Our shared goal is to understand the impact of natural and manmade emissions on air quality and climate and in turn, help society to identify and implement mitigation measures to protect our health and Earth’s climate.

RADICAL is one of several projects contributing to this larger goal, aiming to develop an innovative new sensor for air quality monitoring.

Follow our progress with RADICAL