Photochemical Smog

Air Pollution in Megacities

What’s the most common sight when you approach a large city by airplane?

Urbanization and Air Quality

Urbanization high concentration of people, industries and automobiles. Exhaust gases from internal combustion engines: CO, CO2, HC (hydrocarbons), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). NO2 is the precursor of photochemical smog. In the presence of sunlight, photochemical reactions occur that produce smog. (Photochemical reactions are chemical reactions that involve light photons). Local climate can make the problem worse.

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Photochemical Smog – The Story of Los Angeles Air Quality

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Three main ingredients of photochemical smog: high automobile traffic volume, plenty of sunlight, and very stable atmosphere (e.g.,Los Angeles Basin). High traffic volume Eastern Pacific High –  Subsidence produces inversion, resulting in an absolutely stable condition.  Subsidence also produces clear condition more sunlight. Topography – basin helps trapping pollutants

Chemical Reactions of Smog
A few important reactions: (1) NO2 + hν  NO + O (hν represents a photon) (2) O + O2 + M  O3 + M (M represents a neutral molecule) (3) O3 + NO  NO2 + O2 slow (4) O + HC (hydrocarbon) stable product + F.R. (free radical) (5) O3 + HC  S.P. + F.R. (6) F.R. + HC  S.P. + F.R. (Being a stable product doesn’t mean it is pleasant! It can be irritating to our body.) (7) F.R. + NO  F.R. + NO2 fast


(8) F.R. + NO2  Stable Product (PAN-Type, Peroxyacetyl Nitrate ) (9) F.R. + F.R.  Stable product The most important reactions are (1)-(3).

Daily Concentration Variation of Smog Chemicals

Photochemical Smog and Weather

The following slides show the close relationship between the air quality and meteorological conditions.

We see that there was a low pressure system out in the Pacific . The whole California was controlled by a high pressure system. Near Southern California, the weather was clear and the air was stable. This usually implies that air quality would be poor.


We can use the ozone level s a general air quality index. On this day, the peak ozone level at Pasadena was nearly 200 units while it was about 80 units in West LA. High ozone level indicates poor air quality.

A low pressure system was moving closer to the west coast and a cold front was approaching Southern California. The weather was expected to become cloudier and the air less stable. Usually the air quality can be expected to improve under such weather condition.

This is the satellite image of the day showing the approaching cold front system. The sky over S. California was still clear but the vertical motion of air was stronger than before and the air quality should improve somewhat.


And indeed the air quality was improved. The peak ozone level in dropped to ~ 100 units in Pasadena and ~ 70 in WLA.

On the next day the cold front was right over the west coast.Southern California weather was cloudy. The atmosphere was unstable and air quality should be improved further.


Look at the remarkable improvement of ozone levels at Pasadena and W. LA! The above series of slides show clearly the intimate relation between local air quality and weather.

Air Stagnation due to High Pressure Systems

Source: Williamson, 1973.

Source: National Park Service

During the life cycle of plants, some organic particles (such as turpanoids) are ejected. Due to the high frequency of air stagnation these particles tend to stay in the air for a long time and hence the hazy look. This is of course a natural phenomenon and not a man-made pollution, but it is another good example of the close relation between particle concentration and weather.

Emission Control

Because of the photochemical smog problem and its relation with automobile emissions, California has enacted a series of regulations purported to cut down the emissions. Two specific actions are of interest in this regard:  (1) The installation of catalytic converter to reduce then amount of NOX emitted.  (2) The designation of ‘diamond lanes’— only cars with two or more passengers can use these lanes, so as to encourage carpooling. The problem, however, will stay as long as the traffic volume is large. One really needs to develop an efficient public transportation system in a city like that.

Vacuum-Insulated Automotive Catalytic Converter Converter Basics:
Variable-conductance vacuum insulation and phase change material (heat storage) are used to keep catalytic converters hot for up to 24 hours. By having a hot (> 250oC) converter at the start of a trip, auto emissions can be reduced by up to 80%. NREL developed and patented this concept, and has worked with Benteler Industries of Grand Rapids, Mich., to commercialize it under a