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Air quality scientists finding mysteries in Utah’s smog

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Posted at 7:25 PM, Feb 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-04 21:25:28-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- Where’s the ammonia coming from, and what is making the tiniest things in the air come together to form dangerous particulates?

Digging into atmospheric data in Utah is leading to more questions, but the collection of scientists combining efforts in a $7.7 million project are thrilled to have the means to do the digging.

“We have many different ways to tackle the problem,” said John Lin, Associate Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Utah.

Lin is one of five scientists who presented some initial data from a project bringing together the University of Utah, Weber State University, Utah State University, and the State Division of Air Quality.

Their monitoring stations are two TRAX trains, a high-tech van they call the “Nerd-mobile", and weather balloons they raise to varying heights to measure the makeup of the air at different altitudes.

Among their findings: There are significant amounts of ammonia in the air above the Salt Lake Valley. Ammonia is normally a part of farming operations, and it is commonly found among agricultural areas like the Cache Valley or California’s San Joaquin Valley.

“It's not a very agricultural valley,” said Munkh Baasandorj, a scientist with Utah’s Division of Air Quality.

The scientists say they will search for the source of the ammonia.

They also say they want to find which of the ingredients in Utah’s smog are the most responsible for drawing other ingredients together to make larger, unhealthy particulates.

“We know we should be emitting less," Randy Martin said. "We should drive our cars less, but how much less, and is it the cars that are more the problem or should we go after area sources."

Research Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering at Utah State University.

Area sources refer to the emissions from buildings.