UCL Mathematical & Physical Sciences


Clean Air Day: "Spectroscopy in a Suitcase" programme and air quality research at UCL

To mark the day, our student Mayukh talked to Professor Andrea Sella (UCL Chemistry) about the innovative "Spectroscopy in a Suitcase" outreach programme and the broader efforts to tackle air quality.

Clean Air Day

20 June 2024

The "Spectroscopy in a Suitcase" programme

Spectroscopy studies the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation, allowing to analyse and identify substances based on the unique pattern of light they emit or absorb. 

The "Spectroscopy in a Suitcase" programme, as explained by Professor Sella, aims to bring the powerful tool of spectroscopy directly into classrooms. "Spectroscopy is truly fundamental, and it comes in many different forms," he remarked, emphasising the versatility and importance of this scientific technique. However, he acknowledged the challenge that high costs pose for schools, particularly for advanced forms of spectroscopy like infrared and NMR spectrometry.

Professor Sella elaborated on the programme's inception: "Many years ago, we wondered whether it might be valuable to have a spectrometer of some kind that we could take out to schools and give students the possibility of running their own spectra on their own samples." This hands-on approach allows students to engage directly with the equipment, akin to the difference between baking a cake yourself versus watching someone else do it.

Impact and reception

The programme has seen a steady stream of interest from schools, with many requesting repeat visits. "Teachers found it valuable, and they would invite us back and do it again," Professor Sella noted. While it is challenging to track the long-term impact on students' career choices, the recurring interest from educators indicates the programme's effectiveness in enhancing science education.

One of the most memorable aspects of the programme, according to Professor Sella, is the shift from predictable experiments to more open-ended investigations. "If you do something where the answer is not known, that comes closer to what we really do in science, and that is to find out something new." This approach not only teaches scientific principles but also fosters critical thinking and curiosity.

Linking spectroscopy to environmental issues

The "Spectroscopy in a Suitcase" programme also ties into current environmental concerns, such as plastic pollution. Professor Sella described a practical exercise where students analyse samples from a bag of rubbish, including everyday items like coffee packets and clothing fibres. This activity raises awareness about microplastics and encourages students to think critically about their impact on the environment.

UCL's efforts on air quality research

Beyond the outreach programme, UCL is deeply involved in air quality research. Various research groups across the institution are studying air quality, measuring pollutants at different altitudes, and working on decarbonisation initiatives. Professor Sella highlighted the work of Dr David Rowley, who is involved in projects measuring pollutant levels above London to understand the air quality profile of the city.

A significant push is also underway to decarbonise UCL's operations. The university's energy manager is leading efforts to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions and transition to more sustainable energy systems. This comprehensive approach integrates learning about building operations with teaching and research, providing students with real-world applications of their studies.

Personal motivation and call to action

Professor Sella's commitment to environmental sustainability is driven by a personal sense of responsibility. "Climate change presents the biggest threat to every single person on earth," he stated, emphasising the urgency of acting now to safeguard the future for our children.

He also highlighted the importance of involving young people in finding solutions to environmental challenges. "These problems and the solutions we are trying are phenomenal opportunities for learning at a research level and then a teaching level."

Clean Air Day serves as a reminder of the critical importance of air quality and the need for innovative approaches to education and research. The "Spectroscopy in a Suitcase" programme exemplifies how hands-on, engaging scientific education can inspire the next generation to tackle environmental issues.

Meanwhile, UCL's broad array of research initiatives underscores the university's commitment to creating a sustainable future. As Professor Sella aptly put it, "We are all in this together," and it is through collective effort and innovative thinking that we can achieve cleaner air for all.

Mayukh Das
MSci Chemistry student (Department of Chemistry)