Aerosol Sampling Program: fine particle pollution research

Key contacts: David CohenArmand Atanacio


 Prof David Cohen revealing the sources of Sydney's air pollution


ANSTO has been using Ion Beam Analysis (IBA) techniques to analyse fine particle pollution samples collected from key sites around Australia, and internationally, for more than 20 years. Above is a short video of Professor David Cohen explaining how IBA techniques are helping to reveal the sources of Sydney's fine particle air pollution.

Comprehensive ASP publications and databases are available on this website.

To request access to aerosol measurement/characterisation at the Centre for Accelerator Science, please use the ANSTO Research Portal

Where does fine particle pollution come from?

ANSTO is playing a lead role in measuring and characterising fine particles from a range of locations around Australia and internationally. Rapid population growth has created a concurrent rise in fine particle pollution, generated by industry, trucks, coal-fired power stations, cars and other man-made sources.
Nature also generates fine particle pollution in the form of sea spray and wind-blown soil, dramatically illustrated in the September 2009 dust storms that hit Sydney and other areas.
While the human eye cannot see these fine particles - defined as particles with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometres, which is 40-50 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair - high concentrations of them can significantly reduce visibility. In fact, they play a key role in climate variability as they are very efficient in scattering and absorbing solar radiation.  

These fine particles can also cause significant health problems, as the human nose and throat are inefficient at filtering them out, meaning they can penetrate deep into the lungs and even our blood stream. The image below provides a  size comparison of some common airborne particles.
David Cohen air pollution infographic courtesy of Fairfax
Nuclear techniques used at ANSTO are helping to fingerprint the sources of fine particle air pollution In Sydney, as well as other major cities around the world. Image courtesy of Fairfax.

How fine particle samples are collected

Fine particle samples are collected on thin stretched Teflon filters and analysed using Ion Beam Analysis, which is a fast, sensitive and non-destructive way of establishing the chemical elemental and concentration of particles on the filter. The following animation illustrates the process: 


  1. Air is drawn through the air inlet via a narrow gap under the weatherproof cap

  2. It passes down through the stack tube and into the cyclone

  3. After entering the cyclone it begins to spiral where centrifugal forces remove the heavy particles

  4. The lighter PM2.5 particles then continue travelling upwards where they collide with the this stretched tefon filter surface and become trapped. After a set time the filters are removed from the cyclone ready for analysis

  5. Each Teflon filter is then analysed using accelerator-based IBA techniques, which provide a fast, sensitive and non-destructive way of establishing the elemental composition and concentration, more than 20 elements including for example silicon, iron, sulphur and lead, can be identified within the filter.


IBA techniques

Accelerator based IBA techniques (PIXE, PIGE, PESA and RBS) play a key role in this research. They can simultaneously determine 21 key air pollution elements 9H, F, Na, Al, Si, P, S, CI, K, Ca, Ti, V, Cr, Mn, Fe, Co, Cu, Ni, Zn, Br and Pb) collected on each filter with sensitivity down to 1ng/m3 of sampled air, non-destructively and requiring no additional sample preparation.
It also takes only 5 minutes per filter for the IBA analysis to be completed making it an ideal technique for the hundreds of samples collected each month as part of the ongoing research program.

Research highlights 


ANSTO has been tracking and publishing data on fine particle pollution from key sites around Australia, and internationally, for more than 20 years.  


To view data on fine particle pollution from key sites along the New South Wales (Australia) coast, click the marker on the map. Select the year from the drop down list that appears below the map and add or remove items in the graph by checking or unchecking the boxes.





Fine particle concentration contour maps have been generated using long-term ANSTO ASP data collected in Sydney from 2007-2013. 

Monthly average PM2.5 concentrations from 2007-2013 have been used to produce contour maps which provide an indication of fine particle concentration levels from Wollongong through Sydney to Newcastle in NSW, Australia. 

A bounding box of 8° x 8° was defined with Sydney (located at 151.2086°E, 33.8683°S) being in the centre of the box. Kriging (a Gaussian process regression method)  was then used to carry out a spatial interpolation.

Given that data from only seven ASP sampling sites were available for the interpolation; and effectively an extrapolation was being obtained further form these monitoring locations, the values at the boundary of the box were set to the median values of the data-set divided by 5 and data further than 100km from any ASP site should be treated with caution.

The boundary was chosen such that it had small impact on interpolated values close to the locations where measurements were available. 

Contour map video animations for Black Carbon (Top Left), Soil (Top Right), Ammonium Sulfate (Bottom Left) and Mass (Bottom Right) 


Upper Hunter particle characterisation study 


 The Upper Hunter Fine Particle Characterisation Study commenced in January 2012 to study the composition of fine particles 2.5 microns and smaller in diameter (PM2.5) in the Upper Hunter Valley towns of Singleton and Muswellbrook.


More details, the final report and a summary of the findings can be found here:


 The project was jointly funded by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and NSW Health, with co-investment from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) as the lead researcher. OEH staff conducted the sampling at each location. Researchers from CSIRO and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) led sample analysis, evaluation and the reporting of results.


Lower Hunter particle characterisation study 

This study is a collaborative project commissioned and funded by the New South Wales (NSW) Environment Protection Authority (EPA). The collaborating organisations consist of: NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH), NSW Health, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
The 12 month (March 2014 to February 2015) study is being undertaken to provide communities in the Lower Hunter with scientific information about the composition and likely sources airborne particles 2.5 micrometres and smaller in diameter (PM2.5) in the Lower Hunter region, and the composition of particles 10 micrometres and smaller in diameter (PM10) in the vicinity of the Newcastle Port. Study findings will be released early in 2016.
More details about the study can be found here:

Air Pollution Study in Papua New Guinea
We currently have 3 ASP sampling units operating in the highlands of PNG as part of an ongoing ANSTO airborne fine particle study funded by the Porgera Joint Venture (PJV) to assess the local PM2.5 around their large Porgera gold mine. More details can be found here
Ongoing ASP involvement in the Asia region through the UN-International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
Visible atmospheric haze is a major problem for many countries in the Asia region.Identifying the contributing sources of this haze is the first critical step towards developing strategies for reducing or eliminating this pollution.
ANSTO is part of an ongoing Regional Co-operative Agreement (RCA) project studying both fine and coarse aiparticles in 14 countries including Australia, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
Already the information collected, called the Asia-Pacific Aerosol Database (A-PAD), is proving to be an invaluable resource for developing new air pollution models and pollution reduction strategies based on better quantification of local source contributors, as well as the influence of sources like long range transport on the particle concentrations at a site.
More details about the study and results can be found here
A subset of the A-PAD and related IAEA report can be downloaded here: