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If humans created an emissions hall of shame, which pollutants would you nominate?
Carbon dioxide and methane would probably be fan favorites. But take a moment and consider my dark horse candidate: sulfur dioxide. Unlike its carbon-based counterparts, sulfur dioxide is not considered a major greenhouse gas and doesn't get as much attention in the media. Instead, it does its dirty work in other ways.
Sulfur - Dioxide - Burning - Fuels - Power
Sulfur dioxide is emitted primarily through the burning of fossil fuels from power plants, industry, automobiles, planes and ships. The sulfur dioxide then finds other atmospheric molecules in the air, combines with them, and forms sulfur-containing particles.
These inhalable particles can be very small—some less than one-tenth the width of a human hair—and they contribute to acid rain, haze and smog. All of these cause respiratory complications and exacerbate existing conditions such as asthma. In fact, these particulates are considered the air pollutant with the largest public health impact.
Chemist - Technologies - Challenging - Problems - Pollution
I'm an organic chemist developing technologies to solve challenging, large-scale problems like sulfur pollution on a molecular level.
Living in Los Angeles, it's impossible to avoid sulfur-containing particle pollution on a daily basis and it's a significant public health issue in many other North American cities as well. Other parts of the world, including many cities India and China, have it even worse.
Silver - Lining - Cloud - Whereas - Carbon
But there's a silver lining to our smog cloud. Whereas carbon dioxide is a necessary byproduct of fossil fuel combustion, sulfur dioxide is not. Unlike carbon, sulfur is actually an undesired contaminant in fuels. This means that if all of the sulfur could be removed from fossil fuels before they are burned, sulfur emissions would be slashed and pollution curbed.
Fortunately, most of the sulfur is already removed from fuels during refining through a remarkable chemical process called hydrodesulfurization. The sulfur gets stripped from the fuel in the form of...
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