Prof. Athanasios Nenes wins two prestigious grants

Sensors detect indoor air pollutants.© istock, Suebsiri

Sensors detect indoor air pollutants.© istock, Suebsiri

Professor Athanasios Nenes, the head of EPFL’s Laboratory of Atmospheric Processes and their Impacts (LAPI), has won EU and Swiss research grants for two large-scale projects. The first will look at how indoor air pollution, allergens and viruses affects children’s health, and the second will examine the complicated role of reactive nitrogen in our ecosystem and the response to the energy transition in Switzerland.

Professor Athanasios Nenes and his research group kicked off the first of the two projects, SynAir-G, in September. This project brings together 21 partner organizations including EPFL and another research institute with which Nenes is affiliated – the Institute of Chemical Engineering Sciences, within the Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas. EPFL has been awarded a four-year EU Horizon grant for nearly CHF 400,000 to help cover the project’s total CHF 6.6 million cost. “Out of 150 projects submitted for the call, only 6 were funded and we obtained the highest score possible,” says Nenes.

Prof. Athanasios Nenes.© Alain Herzog

SynAir-G project

SynAir-G addresses a very worrying public-health problem: the effect of indoor air pollutants on school-age children. Air pollutants come in many different forms – from toxic particles and allergens to pollen, fungal spores, bacteria and viruses – and are emitted from a variety of sources. Under the project, scientists will install sensors that will detect all these types of pollutants in classrooms across Europe where children aged 4–12 spend their days. This will include new sensors developed under SynAir-G for virus detection, as well as cutting-edge sensors for detecting pollen and fungal spores. The goal will be to measure the different kinds of pollutants, characterize their dynamics and document the information. “This is the first study to look specifically at the synergies between different pollutants and how they impact children’s health,” says Nenes. “Our findings will help public-health officials pinpoint the sources of childhood exposure and identify the mitigation steps that need to be taken.”

ReCLEAN project

The second project, called ReCLEAN, will start in January 2023 and run for three years. Here, the research team will conduct an in-depth study of the nitrogen cycle in Switzerland. The project is one of the ETH Board’s joint initiatives, in the Energy, Climate and Sustainable Environment strategic focus area, and will help bolster collaboration among Swiss universities. ReCLEAN has a total budget of CHF 4 million, and five R&D centers are taking part – spearheaded by EPFL.

ReCLEAN scientists will aim to quantify nitrogen flows in Switzerland’s air, water and soil. Some forms of nitrogen cause major environmental issues impacting the climate, air quality, ecosystems and human health. The data collected will help predict the effects of the energy transition and, according to Nenes, “give us unprecedented insight into Switzerland’s nitrogen cycle.”

LAPI is coordinating the project and will conduct airborne nitrogen measurements and modeling in collaboration with the Paul Scherrer Institute and ETH Zurich. At the same time, ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (eawag), and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) will analyze soil and water samples. Other stakeholders are also involved in ReCLEAN, such as Agroscope and the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA), thus expanding the project’s reach.