World-Class VIU Research Vehicle Will Monitor Air Quality in Nanaimo this Winter

Larissa Richards and Dr. Nick Davey reading the data inside their new research vehicle, known fondly as the Mass Specmobile.

November 19, 2018 - 8:15am

Researchers with Vancouver Island University’s (VIU’s) Applied Environmental Research Laboratories (AERL), in co-operation with community partners are conducting a Regional Air Quality Mapping Pilot Project in the Central Island region.

The Mobile Mass Spectrometry Lab, a.k.a. the Mass Specmobile, is the only one of its kind in Canada.  The high-tech innovations onboard allow researchers to continuously measure trace-level contaminants from a moving vehicle. The molecular-level information allows them to map out the geographical distribution of atmospheric components that have an impact on regional air quality, including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and greenhouse gases.

“Across BC, there’s a very good network of air-quality monitoring stations at fixed locations that are operated by the provincial government,” explains Nick Davey, a researcher involved with the project who grew up in Nanaimo. “With our mobile lab, we can fill in the gaps between those stationary sites and provide value-added information about the relative levels of specific molecules using our mobilized mass spectrometer. This is the first time anything like this has been done in the country.”

The mobile lab and its team hit the road for the first time this summer monitoring air quality in the Alberni Valley and the Nanaimo region over a five-week period in July and August. “Our summer sampling focused on volatile organic compounds that can be associated with odours.”

Sampling in the Nanaimo region this winter will focus on distribution of fine particulate matter and its association with volatile organic compounds.

“This project is an excellent example of research in the public interest,” says Dr. Erik Krogh, co-director of the AERL.  “Our motivation is to develop new techniques for monitoring air quality and to generate high-quality data that can be used by the communities that we serve.”

Contributions to this pilot project from the Regional District and City of Nanaimo have been matched two-fold by VIU’s Regional Initiatives Fund, which enables students to participate in meaningful, community-based, applied research.

“This project will provide information that will be a useful comparison to a study completed ten years ago that examined the distribution of wood smoke that is known to affect people’s health,” Krogh says.

In addition, this project includes collaborations with staff at the BC Ministry of Environment and the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

“Poor air quality is a leading cause of illness from environmental exposures and current air quality monitoring is limited to a few well-researched pollutants. This provides us with excellent information on general air quality and would be improved by more specific information on other pollutants,” said Dr. Paul Hasselback, Medical Health Officer with Island Health.  “The mobile monitoring laboratory can look both at spatial distribution and a suite or other pollutants, which will better inform how air quality can improve.”

Results from the pilot project will be shared with the community in 2019.

Davey says if people see the AERL van in their neighborhood and want to know more, they are welcome to talk to us. “We’re happy to explain what we are up to when we’re out sampling. The technology onboard is pretty cool”.

The Mobile Mass Spectrometry Lab and its equipment were developed at VIU by Krogh and Dr. Chris Gill, co-directors of the AERL thanks to a $1-million investment from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the BC Knowledge Development Fund. For more details about the project or the technology, email



 Annette Lucas, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

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Tags: AERL | Chemistry | Research