Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
Monday, June 18, 2018

Nation’s Largest Indoor Air Quality Experiment

Collaborative research team outfits house with scientific instrumentation to demystify indoor air chemistry

The average person spends 90 percent of his or her time indoors—yet little is understood about how chemical compounds indoors interact and transform throughout our daily lives. This summer, a fleet of experts from CIRES/University of Colorado Boulder, University of Texas, and more have set up trailers around a house testing facility, equipped with a slew of sophisticated instruments. The team will replicate household activities like cleaning with bleach, spritzing hairspray, even gathering a dozen people to cook a holiday dinner—and measure the resulting spectrum of air and surface chemistry in an unprecedented initiative to identify the key causes of indoor air pollution.

The monthlong project, called HOMEChem (House Observations of Microbial and Environmental Chemistry), incorporates measurements from more than 15 research groups from 13 universities. Experiments are taking place inside the one-of-a-kind “UTest House” facility at the University of Texas Austin’s J.J. Pickle Research Campus.

“The HOMEChem study is exciting because it is bringing a broad suite of state-of-the-art analytical instrumentation into the indoor environment, specifically the home environment,” said Wyatt Brown, PhD candidate working under CIRES Fellow Jose Jimenez. “There has never been a study with the breadth of instrumentation that HOMEChem has for looking at the indoor environment. Campaigns like this are standard for aircraft and ground campaigns, but never has the indoor environment been looked at with this level of sophistication.”

Image removed.CIRES Researchers Doug Day (left) and Wyatt Brown (right) collecting data in the UTest house. Photo: Callie Richmond

Working in a variety of fields including engineering, chemistry, and microbiology, the experiment will be on a scale never previously attempted. HOMEChem is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Researchers will continue taking measurements throughout June while experiments are also being conducted within the UTest House to simulate normal human activities, such as cooking and cleaning. The team will also host a large social gathering: About 12 people will cook and share a holiday dinner, but instead of focusing on family and flavor, they’ll assess the impact of human occupation on indoor air quality and surface chemistry.  

Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder—Marina Vance from CU Engineering and CIRES’ Jimenez research group, including Jose Jimenez, Wyatt Brown, Doug Day, Xiaoxi Liu, and Derek Price—and Colorado State University’s Delphine Farmer are leading the organization and planning of the HOMEChem project. Faculty members in the Cockrell School’s Center for Energy and Environmental Resources are hosting the experiments, with key players in the UT Department of Chemical Engineering and the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering.

“The UTest House really is the ideal structure to conduct the unprecedented HOMEChem project,” said Hildebrandt Ruiz, assistant professor in the U. Texas McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering. “While much of the attention has been focused on outdoor air pollution, many engineers and scientists have devoted their careers to better understanding the factors affecting indoor air quality. I am excited to join my colleagues and other leading experts on this first-of-its-kind project.”     

The study has obvious implications for the indoor air quality research community, but its findings could also have implications for other fields, such as cardiovascular medicine with implications for lung disease and childhood asthma.

The HOMEChem team will host an open house for members of the media, academics and industry partners on June 22 at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus. Other institutions involved include the University of California, Berkeley; Indiana University; the University of Toronto; Syracuse University; Drexel University; and the University of California, San Diego. In addition, researchers from Harvard University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Washington University in St. Louis and the College of William & Mary are also participating. Industry partners include Picarro, Airmodus, Handix Scientific and the IAQ sensor company.

This story was adapted from a University of Texas press release that can be found here