Biomass combustion is a major source of aerosol, reactive trace species, and greenhouse gases in Australia. Research into biomass combustion emissions has become increasingly significant as concern for air quality in the urban air sheds of capital cities, major regional centres and rural Australia grows. Under a changing climate the frequency of bushfires, the duration of the bushfire season and the severity of bushfires are expected to change (Keywood et al., 2013). Projections for South-eastern Australia have suggested there could be an increase in the frequency of very high and extreme fire days and that periods suitable for prescribed burning would move towards winter (Hennessey et al., 2005). This is likely to result in substantial reductions in air quality in all Australian capital cities and in many regional towns.
Biomass combustion for domestic applications continues to be a prime source of pollution during winter in urban air sheds and rural towns and there is a move to biomass combustion in some industrial plants in response to pressures for reduced dependency on fossil fuels for energy production.
Understanding these emission sources is central to understanding the atmospheric chemistry of Australia, its probable changes with changing climate, and its impacts on the human population health. Biomass combustion research has become increasingly significant in line with national and international recognition of the importance of biomass combustion emissions for global atmospheric chemistry.
The ACC Group has carried out a number of studies looking at (1) quantification of emission rates and dispersion of air toxics and particulates from bushfires and the chemical characterisation of smoke composition; (2) impacts of bushfire smoke on rural populations, urban air quality, personal exposure of fire-fighters to bushfire smoke emissions; (3) air toxic emissions and emission rates from domestic wood heaters and their impacts on local air quality.
Development of AQFx
The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) funded research led by CSIRO to improve smoke emission and transport modelling in Victoria to support decisions on whether, and where to conduct planned fuel reduction burns. This resulted in a multi-tiered quantitative smoke and air quality prediction system, AQFx which has been operationalised by the BoM. AQfx incorporates the BoM’s weather forecasting system and calculates smoke emissions from ongoing going fires and planned burns using a simplified fire spread model and predicts how much smoke the planned burn will add to the airshed and where the smoke plumes will travel.
The impact of this research has included the adoption of the AQFx system for fire and land management in Victoria and the recommendation by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council to adopt AQFx nationally so that across Australia exposure to smoke from planned burns can be minimised.
Dynamic Smoke Modelling STEM project
The STEM project provides primary and secondary school children and teachers the opportunity to learn about air pollution and how to operate, program and analyse the output from low-cost particle sensors. The students can build their own SMoke Observation Gadget (SMOG) comprised of a particle sensor linked to a Raspberry Pi. Students deploy the SMOG units in their neighbourhood to monitor ambient particles, then process and analyse the collected data, and finally use the data to assess the air quality in their local area. The data will further assist researchers to measure the impact of ambient particles on local and regional air quality.
More information on the STEM project can be found in the CSIRO ECOS article.