University of Utah chemical engineering professors Tony Butterfield and Kerry Kelly have been selected by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to demonstrate their popular project of portable pollution sensors at the annual USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington D.C.

Kelly, an assistant professor, and Butterfield, an associate professor (lecturer), are bringing a team of four undergraduate students who have worked on the research project with them to help demonstrate the low-cost sensors, which detect particulate matter in the air. Many of the sensors have been deployed in schools along Salt Lake County.

“This is a high point for me,” Butterfield said about being chosen by the NSF to be one of 30 research demonstrations for the festival. “I’m very focused on outreach, and I’m excited to go there and show the work that we have done but also see the cool demos that other people have done.”

The USA Science and Engineering Festival is a STEM-based, interactive educational festival, and Kelly and Butterfield said as many as 400,000 middle school and high school students and adults will go through their pavilion of NSF demos during the two-day event. The festival will be held April 7 and 8.

Butterfield and Kelly have developed two types of portable pollution sensors: ones made of LEGO-styled plastic toy blocks and electronic components that are used to teach Salt Lake County high school students how to build them, and a fully-working portable sensor made of a small computer board that is being deployed along schools and other areas in Salt Lake County. The professors will be demonstrating both types of sensors to middle school students at the Science and Engineering Festival. They also will be using an aquarium to demonstrate the concept of weather inversion and how it traps pollution.

The LEGO-styled sensors, part of an outreach program called AIRU, involves visiting science classrooms to talk about air quality and help students build a functional air pollution detector kit out of the toy blocks and an inexpensive computer board. Since the program launched early last year, about 6,000 Utah middle and high school students have participated in it.

“I’m really excited about showing this,” Kelly said about demonstrating the AIRU sensors at the festival. “We have to credit a lot of our interns who came in and helped come up with this idea. They really helped us turn this into something fun.”

Meanwhile, some 50 of the higher-grade working sensors, which can measure particulate matter, temperature, humidity, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide have been deployed along the Wasatch Front, and more will be installed in the future. They also are equipped with GPS and can be connected to the Internet wirelessly.

“It’s very rewarding and exciting,” Matt Dailey, a U chemical engineering sophomore who has worked on the sensors and is traveling to the science and engineering festival to help demo them. “It’s great to see people take interest in what we’re interested in.”