Skills and Competencies
The Institute's competencies have been developed in the course of conducting research, and our diverse skills are continually being used to research, test, and respond to new environmental questions. These core competencies relate to our capacity to understand environmental phenomena by integrating the resources at our disposal. These include institutional experience, background knowledge, infrastructure, existing programs, and, in particular, the abilities of our talented scientists, who are the Institute's most indispensable resource.
The Institute has gained a considerable amount of expertise in the field of environmental analytical chemistry. These competencies include sampling emissions, ambient air, polar environments, oceans and marine environments, sediments, contaminated soils, vegetation, ice and snow. In conducting this research we use active sampling techniques and we are continuously developing new methods and materials that are more efficient and free of outside interference. Beyond sampling we employ purification techniques based on a number of chemical and physical principles. Our actual analytical techniques examine matter that ranges from organic to inorganic, and they include high-resolution mass spectrometry, liquid chromatography, and high-pressure or gas chromatography. To analyze soluble ions, we use ion chromatography and we analyze metals using ICP-MS. These analytical techniques, which are of general use, are complemented by techniques developed specifically for studying environmental pollution. In this regard, we have gained valuable expertise in sampling atmospheric aerosols using active diffusion (with diffusion denuders) and passive diffusion (with passive samplers). For nitrogen-containing compounds we have developed devices for the direct measurement of nitrous and nitric acid, and we strengthened our ability to conduct research on atmospheric particulates by acquiring a X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometer and an automated aerosol characterizer that uses light-microscopy. In addition to developing analytical techniques, the Institute has made substantial progress in the quality of its observations by using gaseous standards and appropriate reference materials.
Knowledge of air pollution in urban areas is essential to public health, especially in light of the fact that urban areas, aside from containing large numbers of people potentially exposed, are also the site where most pollutants are emitted. In fact, most air pollutants are directly related to vehicular traffic. These pollutants often undergo chemical transformations as they encounter solar radiation, which can generate secondary pollutants that are the source of considerable environmental problems. The study of urban pollution has always been a primary area of expertise for the Institute, and we have utilized the resources at our disposal. Our Villa Ada monitoring station in EMEP Montelibretti is located downwind of Rome, while the EMEP Longobucco (CS) site is located at high altitude and the San Lucido (CS) site is located at sea level. Together, these sites constitute a valuable research infrastructure. In this area of research, the Institute has developed analytical methods appropriate for both gaseous substances and particulates, as well as dedicated equipment. Moreover, the Institute has become a main point of reference for European research inquiries, both in measuring atmospheric stability using natural radioactivity and in directly determining pollution sources. This research is of great interest for local governments seeking to understand the implications of policy decisions within a very short time period. Properly-adapted passive samplers and small particulate-assessment systems also allow us to collect measurements in the areas we live in, increasing our understanding of pollution's effects on human health. Recently, we designed an integrated, comprehensive monitoring network composed of fixed and mobile stations that can determine levels of pollution for those with limited economic resources, such as cities located in developing countries.
Development of Advanced Sensors for air quality monitoring
The evolution of global and regional observing systems in the framework of the GEO (Group on Earth Observation) in support to GEOSS program has been the main driver for developing a new research activity within the institute aiming to develop advanced sensor for air pollution monitoring based on nano composite materials characteristics, nano technology and micro electronics. The overall aim is to develop new sensors that are much less expensive, not requiring significant power (< 100 Watts) and maintenance, and suitable to design citizen's observatories for environmental monitoring. the latter is the main goal of H2020 and has been the key emerging topic in the last phase of FP7. This activity is also aimed to support SMEs to be more competitive on emerging markets. Recent emerging market analysis performed by several international organizations (i.e., World Bank) highlights that the future world market in environmental monitoring sensors is between 10-20 Billion USD for the period 2015-2025. Therefore the Institute objective is also to develop a new generation of advanced sensors for major atmospheric pollutants that are equivalent to reference methods and reference technologies approved in EU as part of CEN activities.
The development of analytical technologies for substances in both the gas and particulate phase has enabled important studies of pollutants in remote areas. These studies are needed not only for knowledge about basic physical-chemical processes, but also for the study of global pollution. In this area, the institute is able to characterize aerosols both by particle size distribution and by trace amounts of organic and inorganic substances, including heavy metals. In addition, the Institute has been responsible for EMEP activities related to transboundary pollution, for which we made plans to build additional background stations in mountainous and coastal (Mediterranean) areas. We realized these plans in the region of Calabria, where we built two stations to monitor the chemical composition of the atmosphere, one at high altitude and one at sea level. In the study of background pollution, there has been great interest in implementing systems that characterize both mercury and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). This emphasis prompted the UN to create a commission on hemispheric pollution, in which the Institute has played a coordinating role.
For many years the Institute has devoted time and resources to studying the atmospheric chemistry of polar environments. The presence of both the POLARNET coordination network and our Arctic Base at Ny-Alesund in the Svalbard Islands has enabled the Institute to develop the highest levels of expertise in this field. The base at Ny-Alesund, originally founded by the Institute in 1997 and later passed on to the Department of Earth and Environment in 2006, helped in the development of Institute scientists who have always played an important role in the PNRA (National Program for Antarctic Research) and the IPY (International Polar Year). Our studies of both nitrogen oxide and mercury cycling in polar environments are just two examples of the important results that we have obtained. In these studies we have applied techniques developed in other environments to answer atmospheric research questions pertaining to polar areas. We have also used our proficiency in atmospheric chemistry and physics to augment our research in polar areas, creating a synergy between the two areas of expertise with a potential for further development.
The study of industrial pollution and its impacts has always been one of the Institute's most important research priorities. In particular, we have cultivated an expertise in developing methods of measuring trace species in emission pathways, which has allowed us to characterize different fuels and combustibles. In addition, the Institute has committed to studying industrial processes under the IPPC Directive, in conjunction with other CNR Institutes and the Ministry of the Environment. Particular attention has been given to pollution from large thermal power plants and from incinerators that process both domestic and industrial waste. Here the Institute is one of the few facilities able to reliably measure the pathways of Dioxins and Furans. The Institute's expertise in this area has allowed it to make important technical contributions in drafting decrees. These decrees also recognize the Institute's competence in certifying equipment and analytical methods for measuring emissions. The Institute has also developed sufficient expertise in understanding state-of-the-art methodologies, as it characterizes efficiency and use-limits for effluent-treatment devices and abatement systems in industrial plants.
Air and satellite remote-sensing technologies matured with the development of new techniques for surveying landscapes and environments. In fact, the Institute is the only establishment in the country capable of performing airborne hyperspectral measurements (MIVIS) across 102 spectral channels with a ground resolution of less than two meters. This system has been used in various studies of the atmosphere, forest environments, marine environments, river ecosystems, industrial environments, and has been used for both urban and archaeological observation. It has also been utilized in the field of soil protection and in the geological sciences. This spectrometer is one of the few investigative tools that views environments holistically, and is thus able to provide important answers to environmental questions. Of particular importance is its ability to monitor territory for illegal activities, with regard to both environmental regulation and more generally. Remote sensing by satellite has developed in parallel with those done by air, and we are now able to integrate data collected in space with data collected by aircraft to perform some very interesting studies on both biodiversity and the structure of snow and ice. The maturation of air and satellite remote-sensing techniques has allowed the Institute to develop several applications of this technology, with the best examples coming from environmental enforcement and national defense.
Big Data and Cyber(e)Infrastructures
The activity carried out in one of our Division (UOS in Florence) of the Institute is on development of interoperable systems for Big Data and Open Data management. We have developed data brokering technologies adopted in many EU and international programs and projects. Our researchers are well known in EU and internationally and specifically lead many initiatives in GEO-GEOSS community, in particular are: board's members of IIB e IDIB in GEO/GEOSS, session chair within Earth and Space Science Informatics Division of EGU-ESSI, chair of WG within the Research Data Alliance (RDA; Brokering Interest Group), part of the Steering Committee within Belmont Forum (E-Infrastructures and Data Management Collaborative Research Action), chair of the standardization WG for Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC; Earth System Science DWG and netCDF SWG). Our researchers are leading several EU funded projects within FP7 and ongoing H2020.
Finally, the Institute also focuses on the development of standardized terminology. More and more, government institutions require bilingual terms to harmonize national, European, and International laws. Standardized language allows for shared terminologies, which are important for research on managing industrial pollution and global climate change. The Institute has developed and applied a reference system for environmentally based knowledge. This Thesaurus (called T-Reks) contains 12,000 multilingual terms and is used by most environmental information systems at the national and international level. This activity, which is unique within the country, has been essential to harmonizing environmental terms and definitions.