Michigan researchers' pollution-detecting device builds on past work, shown here under a microscope — tiny electronics and channels for fluids.

Michigan researchers’ device aims to help wearers avoid air pollution

Wearable devices like smart watches perform a plethora of functions, including providing data to help the user be healthier. Soon a wearable could provide real-time air pollution data and suggest routes to avoid the most toxic areas, thanks to a collaborative project from three Michigan university research teams.

University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Oakland University researchers are collaborating to create the device, for which they received a $2.78 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The wearable would detect particulate matter such as soot and toxic metals emitted from vehicles and industrial facilities.

Currently, most air pollution monitoring technology is large-scale, bulky, and often heavy. Access to a small, easily wearable device will especially help vulnerable populations quickly make healthier lifestyle choices, researchers say.

“Vulnerable populations include prenatal exposures, young children and the elderly, and we know it also disproportionately affects communities of lower socioeconomic status and communities of color who may live near air pollution sources like motor vehicle traffic, incinerators, refineries or power plants,” said Tim Dvonch, associate professor of environmental health sciences at UM, in a press release.

The technology

A lot of air pollution monitoring technologies take days or even weeks to gather and analyze data. But this wearable device would do the work nearly instantaneously.

A chemistry professor at Oakland University is developing a highly sensitive chemical sensor technology to help classify the airborne particulate matter. An MSU professor is working to create a microscale sampling device. The equipment will count each pollution particle, determine its size at the nanometer scale, and characterize it based on its composition. 

The devices will also share information to create an air quality map, similar to mobile apps that map traffic and offer navigation to optimal routes. 

All of that has to fit into a device the size of a wristwatch, which the researchers say is challenging but achievable.

Why it’s important

Bulky air pollution monitoring equipment often provides information about pollution over a wide area like a city or neighborhood. Granular data at the individual level is largely unavailable.

“The most exciting aspect of this project is its significance and innovation,” said Xiangqun Zeng, chemistry professor at Oakland University, in a press release. “Currently, there is no personal monitoring device available because of the complexity.”

The researchers believe that creating a network of wearable pollution detection devices will generate unprecedented data that can inform personal decisions and government policies to protect communities.

“The whole idea is that the technology we build would go into a future fitness watch,” said MSU electrical and computer engineering professor Andrew Mason. “This would generate data at a level that’s nowhere near available right now. We could deliver information back to the wearer and it would help researchers better understand the health impacts of air pollution.”

What’s next

After the researchers develop the wearable device prototypes, they will field test them in neighborhoods throughout the Detroit metropolitan area. Ongoing research will involve comparing the wearables’ accuracy to existing large-scale air pollution monitoring equipment.