A University of Puget Sound chemistry professor is studying train emissions in Tacoma, gathering data that could be used to determine whether more stringent regulations are needed and whether greenhouse gases are decreasing.
Dan Burgard and student Matt Breuer are spending four weeks standing on bridges above railroad tracks at Foss Waterway and Chambers Bay, using a machine to measure emissions from passing trains.
The research is important because most of the data on rail emissions is outdated, and testing occurs in a laboratory, Burgard said. Little or none of the information was done in real time.
“We’re out here for a baseline,” Burgard said. “We’re trying to fill a gap in the knowledge.”
He jokes that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is hardly knocking on his door, but he hopes the research being done this summer will give the most accurate picture yet on whether changes to rail industry regulations are making a difference in the air.
It’s even more important, Burgard said, because stricter standards for new or rebuilt trains were implemented in 2008, and tougher laws are being phased in through 2015, when he will retest train emissions to check whether the levels improved.
Although cars and diesel trucks produce far more greenhouse gases, trains and boats also contribute. In 2010, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation accounted for 27 percent of nationwide emissions, according to the EPA.
“With all the money spent by the industry and eventually the consumer, no data exist to show whether all this money is reducing emissions on-road,” Burgard wrote in an email to The News Tribune.
The pair are three weeks into the project, which is being paid for from a fund UPS has for professors’ research. They have yet to analyze the data they’ve gathered. Once they have, they’ll present it at an annual conference of the Coordinating Research Council.
The nonprofit council, funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute and a group of automobile manufacturers, directs studies on the interaction between automotive and transportation equipment and petroleum products, according to its website.
Other studies have been done to gauge how updated regulations on automobiles and trucks have affected air quality, but nobody has looked into rail emissions.
He already has the background. He earned his doctorate from the University of Denver in 2006 and worked with emission testing. One assignment was to modify the Fuel Efficiency Automobile Test (the system used to test gas emissions in transportation) so it also could read levels of nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and ammonia.
The machine Burgard uses to gather information about rail emissions looks normal enough. It’s a white box attached to a laptop with a beam several feet away projecting ultraviolet and infrared light into it. Blocking the light briefly is what starts the system.
Dozens of passers-by have stopped to ask what the heck Burgard and Breuer are doing with the equipment on the bridge, prompting welcome conversations and quizzical looks.
The weather allowing, they go out each day. Sometimes 10 trains come by; other days it’s two dozen. They said they will keep at it until they have compiled data from 100 to 200 locomotives.
Some of it is a guessing game.
They do not have a schedule for the trains, so they sit and wait at the ready. The winds determine where they measure greenhouse gases for the day. If it’s blowing north, they station at the Fourth Street Bridge. If the wind is blowing south, they prefer the bridge near Chambers Bay.
As a train approached Wednesday afternoon, Breuer clocked its speed and scribbled identifying marks in a notebook. They don’t care who owns the locomotive, but they like to know the decade the train was built.
He then started the machine so it could measure two 5-second blocks of emissions. His work was complete long before the rail had even passed beneath the bridge.
Breuer, a biochemistry major who has worked for Burgard in the past, said the project could help him prepare for a career in research.
“It’s a great learning experience,” said the 21-year-old senior.stacia.glenn@ thenewstribune.com 253-597-8653