Academics and Research

DU researcher honored for work on vehicle emissions

Donald Stedman — professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry and the researcher behind pioneering technology to gauge vehicle emissions — has been honored with the Haagen-Smit Clean Air Award.

The award, notes Andrei Kutateladze, dean of DU’s Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, is one of the most prestigious “in the field of sustainability, clean air and climate change.”

Created in 2001 and bestowed annually by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the award acknowledges significant career accomplishments in at least one of several air-quality categories, including research, environmental policy, science and technology, public education and community service.

“The award recognizes Don Stedman’s work on auto and truck emissions,” says Sandra Eaton, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “A major thrust of Don’s research during much of his career was in developing methods for remote sensing of auto emissions — and more recently emissions from trucks. He was a pioneer in showing that emissions could be monitored as a car drove past an on-road sensing system. The tests show actual performance under actual on-road driving conditions.”

They also show, Eaton says, “that a very large fraction of the pollution comes from a small fraction of the cars.” In turn, this finding suggests that “the greatest overall benefit comes from fixing the highest polluting cars.”

For Stedman, a John Evans Research Professor, the Haagen-Smit recognition has particular significance because his work was, in the early days at least, greeted with indifference by major players in the air-quality community. “There are two major agencies in the USA that attempt to reduce on-road car emissions, the CARB and the Environmental Protection Agency,” he noted in an email exchange. “I have not been popular with either agency.”

That’s because, he explains, his data indicated that the computer models used by the two agencies were not particularly applicable to what he calls “real on-road fleet emissions.”

Stedman’s skepticism about the data behind air-quality models dates back to his early job at a major automobile manufacturer. “Forty-five years ago, when I was at Ford Motor Co., it became obvious that the government computer models and reality were not in sync. Ten years later, when I was at [the University of] Michigan, I had the idea for the [remote-sensing] instrument.”

It wasn’t until Stedman arrived at DU that he was able to translate his ideas into reality. Funded by the Colorado Office of Energy Conservation, the system was built and first implemented in the late 1980s.

Given that emissions problems can be traced to a relative handful of cars and trucks, Stedman’s work calls into question the need for emissions testing of every registered vehicle. If remote sensing were to be widely adopted, it would, as Eaton puts it, be “more convenient for car owners because they [would] not need to go to a testing station.”

Stedman’s work — with the chemistry department’s Gary Bishop as his co-investigator — represents what Eaton calls “an excellent example of research contributing to the public good.”

“It is great to see our faculty recognized for these contributions,” she adds.

The award is named for Arie J. Haagen-Smit, a former biochemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology and the first chairman of the CARB. Known to many as the father of air pollution control, Haagen-Smit conducted research that demonstrated that California’s smog and ozone problems mostly resulted from previously unknown photochemistry.

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