Students' hot air balloons

Hot air balloons have always been a fun and frightening pastime. However, with the research of three graduate students, this perception could change.

Matthew Svensson, Mohammed Chamma and Alexis Pascual are PhD candidates in radically different programs at Western University. But they banded together to develop technology that could change the ways scientists can study our atmosphere.

“This whole project was a learning experience for everybody involved,” said Svensson, PhD candidate in earth sciences.

The students launched hot air balloons high into the atmosphere to search the air for specific particles — bioaerosols.

Bioaerosols are aerosol particles that are biologically small in nature. They are often associated with allergens, which are composed of fungus, bacteria and other particles.

They've also bonded over a fascination of space missions, and all wanting a break from working on their theses.

Svensson explained that the plan was essentially a poor man’s space project, inspired by a paper about collecting bioaerosols in extreme conditions.

“What we’re trying to do with this experiment was sample them at different intervals or ranges of the atmosphere and see how they varied,” said Svensson.

This project straddles two expertises — engineering and science. The scientists searched for the best way to contain and analyze the bioaerosols, while the engineers built their blueprints.

Unfortunately, they did experience quite a few setbacks.

When asked to explain some of them, Chamma, a PhD candidate in astronomy said: “Which one?”

These setbacks — said Pascual, PhD candidate in computer and electrical engineering — came from an unfamiliarity with the technology

However, a great deal of the designing and building process was dependant on their ability to improvise.

In Timmins, Ont., a few days before their launch, they realized that their machine's chambers were caught up on each other. They slapped on cereal boxes with holes cut in them to fix the problem for launch.

While they are still in the early stages of their research, the group is very optimistic in their research being used in a variety of fields, including public health and the environment.

After all their work, the three are looking toward the impact of their research.

Svensson said that with enough modifications, the device could help record levels of pollution and the concentration of microplastics in the atmosphere. In fact, it could even detect the spread of allergens or diseases.

The group wants to continue their research and branch out into other territories, such as analyzing atmospheres of other planets.

“With modification to the chamber, it can pretty much be a sampler for whatever particles that exist in the air,” said Pascual.

However, they recognize they are far too early in their research to have such lofty ambitions. They don’t see their technology as a revelation in science, but a cheaper alternative to existing methods.

“We didn’t reinvent the wheel with this technology. We just used a bunch of stuff that was already available to us,” said Pascual.

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