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USU Researchers Working To Better Understand How Wasatch Front Vehicle Make-Up Affects Air Quality

Brian Champagne and class

If your car was built after 1981, it has a catalytic converter to clean up your exhaust. Newer cars put out 98% less Carbon monoxide and other toxic gases than older ones. But Utah State researchers say that something else coming out the tailpipe is particularly bad for the air in Utah valleys.

Motasem Abualqumboz is hooking up sensors to a four-door Rebel built by American Motors in 1969.

“Today's car is unique because it was made before 1981, which is very old,” Abualquamboz said. 

That’s when the Federal government required catalytic converters. This car doesn’t have one. It’s one of almost 50 cars researchers are testing. 

“We’re doing this study to try to replicate the vehicle fleet along the Wasatch Front. So we measure a certain percentage of brand new cars, middle aged cars and old cars to replicate the actual population of vehicles,” said Randy Martin from the civil and environmental engineering department at Utah State University. 

“The project started from the fact that here in the Cache County we have a high concentration of PM 2.5.,” Abualquamboz said. 

Those are the particles that irritate your lungs on bad air days.

“So when the researcher did the studies, they found out that most of the PM2.5 are made of ammonium nitrate,” Abualquamboz said. 

Abualquamboz is riding in the backseat of the car gathering GPS, emissions and engine speed data as it drives.

“Here we are trying to replicate the real world,” Abualquamboz said. 

The route includes stop signs and stop lights and going up and down hills, all while measuring what’s coming out of the tailpipe. 

“We're finding that the ammonia from the automobiles is not insignificant,” Martin said. “In the Cache Valley we have a lot of abundant ammonia sources beyond vehicles, but it seems to make up maybe a larger percentage down along the Wasatch Front.”

And while the 52 year old rebel didn't put out much ammonia, 

“The 2017 and newer and the tier three fuels, the rule of thumb is that those are about 98% cleaner than the older cars,” Martin said. 

The catalytic converter was implemented to clean-up air in areas like Los Angeles.

“They figured out that this is because of CO, NOX and hydrocarbons,” Abualquamboz said.

Now we're all dealing with the toxic byproduct, ammonia.

But Martin said, whether you drive a new or an old car:

“Limit your vehicle miles traveled. And whether you do that through carpooling, through mass transit, taking the bus or just not driving on the bad days, staying home, going to the grocery store the next day. Just try to think about how every time you get in the car you're adding to the pollution burden.”