Rice University logoGeorge R. Brown School of Engineering
Civil and Environmental Engineering

Rob Griffin studies Houston's atmospheric condition

Mike Williams
Rice News Staff

When Rob Griffin looks out from atop a tall building at the University of Houston, he may see blue sky, but he senses something else.

That "something else" is why the Rice associate professor of civil and environmental engineering came to Houston – to investigate air pollution in other urban environments.

"We do all our field measurements in Houston in collaboration with the folks over at UH," said Griffin, who came to Rice from the University of New Hampshire a week before Hurricane Ike last year. "They have an atmospheric sampling site where they do continuous measurements of ozone, nitrous oxides and other pollutants. We bring in our particle-sampling equipment and jump right in. The logistical support is all there."

Griffin Spotlight2 He said that from that vantage point atop UH's 18-story Moody Towers, "you can see all the areas that contribute to the air quality in Houston. You can see downtown, you can see the Ship Channel, and, if you look in the right direction, you can see the big power plant that's to the south. If you look directly west, you can very often see the dust blowing out of West Texas."

Griffin's lab focuses on urban air quality with a specialty in analyzing the ways elements in the atmosphere combine to create unhealthy conditions. While Griffin and his team collect and analyze atmospheric compounds found in and around Houston, Cohan puts their findings into computational models that can be used to compare conditions in Houston with other cities.

"The benefit to being in Houston is that my backyard is my lab," said Griffin. "But there's a bit of a drawback because Houston has a unique emissions profile, with 4 million vehicles and the Ship Channel, and meteorology.

"Once we understand more about air pollution chemistry here, we hope to do the same measurements in Los Angeles or Atlanta or Denver or other cities where air quality has significant impact."

Griffin had spent time sampling air at UH even before coming to Rice, and that made it easier, he said, to hit the ground running once he moved to Houston.

Griffin plans to return to the UH facility within weeks to test for ammonia with a laser-based sampler similar to the one Rice's Frank Tittel, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering, brought to the Beijing Olympics last year.

Griffin recently received a $120,000 grant for a Postdoctoral Program in Environmental Chemistry from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, which will help his lab move forward.

Griffin and co-principal investigator Dan Cohan, an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at Rice, were among eight researchers to win the foundation's environmental chemistry awards this year. The Dreyfus Foundation, created in 1946, supports the advance of chemistry, chemical engineering and related sciences to improve human relations and circumstances.

The award allows their lab to hire a postdoctoral fellow to help research the processes by which airborne particles participate in reactions that form ozone, an atmospheric pollutant that is a major part of smog.

He also recently won nearly $200,000 in National Science Foundation funding for a collaborative project with the University of California-Riverside to investigate gas-to-particle conversion processes that contribute to poor air quality.

He appreciated the extra level of support afforded by Rice's Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations on the Dreyfus grant. "Katie Noble (associate director of foundation relations) proofed our proposal, and that was a big help," Griffin said. "I can write for scientists, but having somebody who can write for the foundations is really great."