Published: April 24, 2019

Wildfires spark water quality research

In 2012, two wildfires burned the Upper Cache la Poudre River watershed in northern Colorado. When Associate Professor Fernando Rosario-Ortiz sampled water from two areas along the river — one affected and one unaffected by fire — he uncovered a chemical difference between the two.

Since then, he and his team have studied how the intensity of wildfires impacts water quality and water treatment. Wildfires release sediments, nutrients, heavy metals and organic matter, all of which contaminate water and nearby soil. To further understand this process, Rosario-Ortiz and his team simulated wildfire severities by heating soils in his lab to different temperatures. What he found was that up to a point, the warmer a soil gets, the more carbon- and nitrogen-containing compounds it releases.

These compounds are problematic because they react with chemicals used to purify drinking water. This results in disinfection byproducts that impact the ability of drinking water utilities to produce water that meets EPA standards.

“The work we do increases understanding and will ultimately help us to improve potable water production,” Rosario-Ortiz said.

Gas well in Colorado and Denver skyline

Poor air quality affects low-income households

Professor Shelly Miller has been studying the effects of climate change on indoor air quality in low-income Denver-area households. With many buildings using large amounts of energy for heating, cooling and ventilating, Miller hopes to improve energy efficiency. She and her team aim to explore health effects of reducing ventilation rates in homes to minimize energy loss.    

Many studies have shown that low ventilation rates harm indoor air quality and health. “For urban homes in Denver, when we assessed respiratory health with questionnaires, we found the opposite to be true,” Miller says. “This is likely because higher ventilation rates let in more outdoor air pollutants than they push out.” As a result, respiratory health, in the form of allergies, asthma and chronic respiratory conditions, was found to be poor in households with high ventilation rates. Not surprisingly, those in households near busy roads with increased exposure to traffic-related pollutants show more severe asthma-like symptoms.

Colorado-born technology detects methane gas leaks

In addition to contributing to climate change, methane leaks from oil and gas wells raise a variety of safety, environmental and financial concerns. As demonstrated by the explosion of a home in Firestone, Colorado, in 2017, these leaks can even be deadly if the gas is unexpectedly ignited.

To identify hard-to-detect leaks before they become a problem, Assistant Professor Greg Rieker and his team are using lasers called frequency comb spectrometers, which they place among dense oil and gas infrastructure.

The system sends the eye-safe laser over mile-long stretches of the atmosphere to mirrors placed among well pads across a several-square-mile region. When the light returns, researchers analyze how much light is missing at certain colors where methane absorbs, identifying traces of methane as small as one part per billion. The team has started a company called LongPath Technologies to commercialize the system.

“It’s a tremendous Colorado story,” Rieker said. “We’ve taken the laser frequency comb — a 2005 Nobel Prize-winning technology from right here at CU Boulder — brought it to the field to solve a problem for a Colorado-based industry and created a Colorado company in the process.”

CPR Podcast: Detecting Methane Leaks Could Turn Into Big Business

AirWaterGas outreach Affects 11 K–12 schools across Colorado

The five-year AirWaterGas project at CU Boulder wrapped up this year with a host of research findings aimed at integrating science into decisions about transitions in energy systems. Through the project’s outreach to K–12 schools across Colorado, it also helped nearly 1,000 students learn to ask their own questions about what is in the air and where it comes from.

In addition to more typical energy systems, such as cars or electricity systems, students at 11 schools have explored air quality of high school locker rooms, nail salons, hospital waiting rooms, small airplanes, feedlots and greenhouses.

“We’ve learned that students get excited about air quality when they conduct research in their communities, especially as it relates to family business,” Assessment Team Lead Daniel Knight said. “It’s great to see students excited about science.”