SCIENTISTS have developed an air quality sensor which could save the lives of babies and people with asthma.

Researchers at the University of Sussex collaborated with a team of scientists from across Europe and the Oxford company M-SOLV to develop a highly sensitive, accurate sensor for Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2).

NO2 is a major air pollutant which originates from combustion engines and industrial processes. Long term exposure to the gas can cause respiratory issues which can be severe and even life-threatening for babies and asthma sufferers.

Professor Alan Dalton, head of the Materials Physics group at the University of Sussex, said: “As a father, one of the things that motivated me to pursue this development was hearing about the influence of dangerous levels of NO2 in the air on infant morbidity.

“It’s not news that urban environments are seeing high levels of pollution, but without widespread and accurate air quality monitoring, most of us are in the dark about how harmful the air in our local area might really be for ourselves and our children.”

According to the 2020 Air Quality Annual Status Report published by Brighton and Hove City Council in June, NO2 “is the most plentiful pollutant” in the city due to road traffic emissions.

The level of NO2 “continues to exceed or be close to exceeding” national air quality standards along the A23, A270, B2066 and A2010 roads into the city.

The area around the Clock Tower was named by Friends of the Earth as the third worst location in England for NO2 earlier this year.

Monitoring air quality to prevent exposure to NO2 is currently only possible with unwieldy, expensive equipment.

The scientists faced a challenge to create a device sensitive enough to detect below 20 parts-per-billion of NO2 in the air, which would also be convenient and affordable to operate in domestic, public and industrial settings.

The breakthrough came when they developed an NO2 sensing layer, based on a Laser Deposited Carbon Aerogel (LDCA), which they discovered has exceptional selectivity towards NO2 over other pollutants. The thin, porous and well-adhered film of LDCA is deposited on to electrodes, which can then be housed in a range of devices for air monitoring.

The sensor can detect close to 10 parts-per-billion of NO2 in under 15 minutes and can operate at room temperature. For the first time, it could provide accurate readings of NO2 levels from a portable device which could synchronise with smartphones and applications.

Peter Lynch, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, said: “One of our shared goals was to develop a sensor that would not only perform fantastically outside of the lab, but would be affordable enough for your average household, ensuring that more of us have access to information on air quality on an hour-by-hour basis.

“As well as helping individuals make informed choices, our hope is that this data could feed into a national – even worldwide – pollution monitoring database, to effect positive action on air quality.”