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Scientists Accidentally Built A Highly Accurate Ozone Detector While Trying To Build Something Else

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A NASA scientist tasked to develop an instrument to detect hydroxyl has instead accidentally created a highly accurate ozone detector.

The Rapid Ozone Experiment, or ROZE, can outperform even the best ozone detectors in the market today.

"Research and development are never wasted," said Tom Hanisco, a research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "When we started this development effort, ozone was the farthest thing from our minds."

An Accidental Invention

Hanisco and his team were originally set out to build an instrument that can measure hydroxyl, a short-lived and highly reactive chemical. Hydroxyl can cleanse the atmosphere of methane, a greenhouse gas that is even more effective at absorbing heat than carbon dioxide.

The scientists wanted to build the detector using the technique called gas filter correlation spectroscopy. The idea was to fill a cavity with hydroxyl produced by the prototype instrument. Once filled, the hydroxyl will block all the wavelengths that the chemical absorbs.

However, during testing, the prototype instrument encountered technical difficulties and produced ozone instead of hydroxyl. It turns out, the instrument is highly sensitive to ozone.

Ozone is a gas that occurs in the upper atmosphere. It protects humans and other life on Earth from the ultraviolet radiation coming from the sun.

However, ozone in the lower atmosphere, which is created by chemical reactions from vehicle exhaust and other emissions is toxic to humans and plants. Inhaling the gas can exacerbate respiratory diseases.

Instead of pursuing their original goal, the scientists tweaked and improved the instrument's sensitivity to ozone. Hanisco said that ROZE is up to 100 times more accurate than the best commercial ozone-detecting instruments today.

Better Air Quality

Hanisco has already filed a patent application for ROZE. He shared that there are currently plans to fly the instrument onboard the aircraft FOREX-AQ (Fire Influence on Regional to Global Environments Experiment-Air Quality). Even if the mission was not meant to measure the ozone in the air, the scientists are hoping to take advantage of the aircraft to test the performance of the instrument under flight conditions.

The team reported that other researchers, government agencies, and universities have expressed interest in the ozone detector. They also said that the instrument could aid understand the ozone budget, especially in areas that exceed the surface ozone limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"EPA has models that can predict how much ozone will form," explained Reem Hannun, who also worked on ROZE. "But these models don't really know how fast it's being deposited. If we don't know the rate, we can't accurately model how ozone moves from one area to the next, or how long it will stick around once formed."

Hanisco is also planning to continue working on an instrument that can detect and measure hydroxyl.

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