British Columbia

UBC deploys pollution-sniffing van to measure air quality in Metro Vancouver

As the van can collect data as often as every second it's on the move, it will show a more detailed picture of the air quality around Metro Vancouver in real-time, says the team of scientists at the University of British Columbia.

The PLUME van is being sent to areas where bad smells are reported

Two people are in a van. The female passenger is looking at a laptop.
Two UBC students drive the pollution-detecting PLUME van around Vancouver. (Paul Joseph/UBC Mechanical Engineering)

A team of scientists out of the University of British Columbia has outfitted a mobile lab that can detect air pollutants on the go.

The scientists say because the van can collect data as often as every second it's on the move, it will show a more detailed picture of the air quality around Metro Vancouver in real-time.

"Using a mobile laboratory rather than fixed air quality sensors means we can cover a greater distance," said Naomi Zimmerman, a professor of mechanical engineering at UBC, in a written news release.

It also means air quality samples can be gathered in hard-to-reach areas, where it may be more difficult to install expensive monitoring equipment.

A white Mercedes van with the UBC Department of Mechanical Engineering sits in a parking lot.
This PLUME van — Portable Laboratory for Understanding Human-Made Emissions — was developed by a team of scientists at the University of British Columbia. (Paul Joseph/UBC Mechanical Engineering)

"We can sample anywhere from highways, to by the ocean, to the middle of a field with the same instrumentation in a single day."

The van is called PLUME — Portable Laboratory for Understanding Human-Made Emissions — and was developed by Zimmerman and her team at UBC's iReach lab.

It uses a variety of instruments to measure the concentrations of well-known pollutants, as well as emerging pollutants, including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ground-level ozone, black carbon, methane, volatile organic compounds, and various sizes of ultrafine particles that can affect air quality.

The PLUME van contains a wide variety of highly precise instrumentation used to measure concentrations of air pollutants. (Paul Joseph/UBC Mechanical Engineering)

PhD student Davi de Ferreyro Monticelli, one of the van's frequent drivers, says they've already made some interesting preliminary observations about how air quality differs across Metro Vancouver.

"We have seen that Richmond in terms of the air quality, is quite good compared to downtown Vancouver," he explained. "Mostly because you don't have too many industries in the areas that we've been with the van."

He says it's too early to draw any definite conclusions since the team only just began field work two weeks ago and won't be analyzing the data until next month.

Davi de Ferreyro Monticelli sits on a bench. He is a white man wearing a blue shirt and blazer.
Davi de Ferreyro Monticelli, a PhD student in the department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences, frequently drives the PLUME van around Metro Vancouver to monitor air pollutants. (Mrinmoy Chakraborty)

The team is using a website called Smell Vancouver, where people can report odours they notice in Metro Vancouver to determine where to send the PLUME van.

"Smells have been treated a lot in the past, just as a nuisance," Monticelli said. "But more recently we have been looking at smells differently in a way that it can also harm the person and everyday life."

He says they want to find out if there is a correlation between unpleasant smells and poor air quality.

In a written release, Zimmerman says that breathing polluted air has been linked to health problems and to an estimated nine million premature deaths per year worldwide.

If they can establish a link between odours and air pollution, the team says their goal would be to create and publish maps to show members of the community how different areas are impacted.


Eva Uguen-Csenge is a multimedia reporter for CBC News in Vancouver with an interest in investigative and data-driven stories. Get in touch with her at or on Twitter @evacsenge for story tips.