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Space-based solutions to air pollution in the UK

Project Description

Air pollution is the largest global threat to health (Lancet, 2017). In the UK, about 40,000 people die prematurely each year due to exposure to air pollution (RCP, 2016) and UK health care costs due to air pollution may be as high as £160 million per year (PHE, 2018). It is extremely challenging to extensively monitor air quality and develop effective policies. Routine and widespread monitoring is costly, so there are large data gaps and air quality policy tools are under validated. These tools include air quality models that predict air pollutant concentrations ( and emission inventories to estimate the amount of pollution released from individual sources (

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has ambitious plans to develop policy that protects the environment and safeguards the health of people in the UK (DEFRA, 2018).

Key to the success of these plans is air pollutant measurements from instruments in space (Earth observations), as these provide daily coverage across the UK (Catapult Blog, 2018). An example is shown in the figure below for the toxic air pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from the TROPospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) on the European Space Agency Sentinel-5P satellite ( High levels of NO2 are due to cars and congestion in cities, power generation, and ship traffic.

In this work you will learn the skills needed to efficiently process and analyse big data from space-based instruments to use this information to understand dynamic changes in air pollution, estimate pollutant emissions across the UK, and contribute to DEFRA’s Clean Air Strategy. You will be trained by Harvard and Oxford educated supervisors with expertise in atmospheric chemistry modelling, atmospheric chemistry, and Earth observations at the country’s Earth observations research hub. You will also gain hands-on experience in UK air quality policy with placements at DEFRA, participate in DEFRA and Air Quality Experts Group meetings, and learn about air quality policy in other countries by attending a NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team ( meeting in the US.

Process, analyse, interpret, and visualise big data from high-resolution space-based instruments. Evaluate these space-based measurements against surface observations from the DEFRA monitoring network. Convert air pollutant concentrations into precursor pollutant emissions with GEOS-Chem (, the most widely used atmospheric chemistry model in the world.

Evaluate the quality of DEFRA tools by comparing air quality model output to Earth observation measurements of air pollutants and by comparing emissions from the UK National Atmospheric Emission Inventory to emissions derived with GEOS-Chem and Earth observations.

Spend two 2-month placements at DEFRA to learn about the inner workings of this government agency, learn the techniques in compiling inventories and monitoring and modelling air quality, gain detailed insight into air quality policy development in the UK, integrate your results in UK air quality policy, and communicate your results to DEFRA, other relevant government departments, and the UK Air Quality Experts Group.

DEFRA is a named CASE partner on this project. They have committed to hosting the student at the department for 2 months each in Years 2 and 3, contributing to providing the CENTA2 cohort with training in Environmental Policy, and providing in-cash contribution of £2,000 per year for 3 years to support the placements and for routine meetings with DEFRA to report findings from this project. The proposed project is well aligned with DEFRA priorities to build an air quality evidence base, address uncertainties in the National Atmospheric Emission Inventory, and strengthen partnerships with academics.

Entry requirements

Applicants are required to hold/or expect to obtain a UK Bachelor Degree 2:1 or better in a relevant subject. The University of Leicester English language requirements apply where applicable.

How to apply

Please refer to the CENTA Studentship application information on our website for details of how to apply.

As part of the application process you will need to:
• Complete a CENTA Funding form – to be uploaded to your PhD application
• Complete and submit your PhD application online. Indicate project CENTA2-PHY4-MARA in the funding section.
• Complete an online project selection form Apply for CENTA2-PHY4-MARA

Funding Notes

This studentship is one of a number of fully funded studentships available to the best UK and EU candidates available as part of the NERC DTP CENTA consortium. The award will provide tuition fees as the UK/EU rate and a stipend at the RCUK rates for a period of 3.5 years.

For more details of the CENTA consortium please see the CENTA website: View Website.

Applicants must meet requirements for both academic qualifications and residential eligibility: View Website

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