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3 December, 2018 - 00:18 By Kate Sweeney

Climate change research boosted by university’s laser technology

The University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield is playing a key role in climate change research – bringing related benefits to the aviation industry and food production – through a new international hub leveraging advanced laser technology.

The university’s lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) instrument is the most powerful of its kind in Europe; for a few nanoseconds the lidar can generate more power than a nuclear power station.

Lidar systems work by firing rapid pulses of laser light at the surface of objects in the atmosphere – gases and particles from natural sources and human activities. 

The university’s laser light can be fired to heights of at least 50 km, which enables researchers to analyse pollutants of highly diverse origins, including pollution transported to the UK from other continents. 

The observations provide a detailed understanding of the properties of atmospheric pollution, including size and chemical composition.

The bespoke lidar system, which has been built with the investment of £2 million from the university’s capital expenditure budget, is one of the most advanced in the world. 

It is unique in the way its components have been put together and has been designed to measure the impact of atmospheric pollution on climate change, air quality, human health and crop production.

The lidar facility will create a hub for research with huge potential applications in many areas, from modern opto-electronics and lasers that are used in industry to research on bio-aerosols, their impact on global food production, and how biogenic pollution may be a cause for cancer and respiratory diseases.

Additionally, the facility is one of only two in the UK to have been chosen by the European Space Agency to support its €500m, three-year programme to measure global wind systems (Aeolus), using Europe’s first space lidar (launched into orbit on 22 August 2018) and a network of land-based lidar facilities across Europe. 

This information will be used to improve weather forecasting and the prediction of extreme weather situations and contributes to dealing with the challenges climate change poses to society and the economy in the 21st century.

Professor John Senior, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at the University, said: “Our research addresses major issues facing business and society and we excel in impactful, innovative and multidisciplinary research that is internationally recognised for its excellence. 

“We will use our lidar facility to work collaboratively with both academia and industry, in the UK and around the world, on research projects that will contribute to global efforts to tackle the key challenges that climate change poses to society in the 21st century.”

Researchers will also use the technology to identify airborne biological material, such as bacteria and pollen; this work could improve forecasting the threat of respiratory infections and allergy risks. 

The lidar can also be used to improve the accuracy of the monitoring of airborne fungi, spores and insects, which could lead to more effective crop protection measures. 

Improved monitoring and forecasting of the presence and composition of volcanic ash clouds and desert dust in the air, by using the lidar, will provide vital information to the aviation sector.

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