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Award allows creation of ‘virtual air’ archive at York

Posted on 7 February 2014

Atmospheric chemists at the University of York developing a ‘virtual air’ archive have received a major government funding boost.

Alistair Lewis

The award of nearly £208,000 from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) will be invested in new computing infrastructure at York, allowing retrospective analysis of stored samples of air.

The award is part of £4.6m NERC funding announced by the Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, which in turn forms of part of the Government’s Big Data investment. The aim is to allow the UK research community to take advantage of existing environmental data for science and impact.

The York project, Big Data for Atmospheric Composition and Chemistry: Understanding and Science (BACCHUS), is led by Professor Alastair Lewis and Professor Mathew Evans from the University’s Department of Chemistry.

The funding will support tools for visualisation, analytical software, new computing and large capacity storage facilities. The new infrastructure will help combine the massive datasets generated by York's atmospheric chemistry modelling with state of the art analytical chemistry instruments in the lab, to create a virtual archive of atmospheric composition.

Professor Lewis said: “Our work is all about measurement of organic compounds in air. A conservative estimate would have of the order of 1,000 in urban air in the gas phase, and perhaps 10,000 in airborne aerosols. 

“As we discover the structures of new compounds in air, we intend to go back through our virtual archive and automatically search out these new species. It appears to offer us a way back in time, without the problems associated with physical degradation of stored samples.

“The ability to extrapolate new discoveries on tiny chemical details back through a past history of atmospheric samples could have a revolutionary effect on our science.” 

The 24 successful Big Data projects will help with problems including those where large file sizes are present, there are a wide variety of data types, data needs to be analysed in real time, or where large quantities of data held on paper need to be made digital.

David Willetts, Minister for Universities & Science, said: “Making the most of large and complex data is a huge priority for government as it has the potential to transform public and private sector organisations, drive research and development, increase productivity and innovation, and enable market-changing products and services.

“This funding will help the UK grasp these opportunities and get ahead in the global race.”

Professor Duncan Wingham, NERC’s Chief Executive said: “This will enable a new kind of science by allowing researchers to run potentially complex environmental models, to capture real-time data from sensors embedded in the natural environment, and to support the synthesis of this information impacting on science, policy and the economy.”