Understanding the ability of low-cost MOx sensors to quantify ambient VOCs
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present a unique challenge in air quality research given their importance to human and environmental health, and their complexity to monitor resulting from the number of possible sources and mixtures. New technologies, such as low-cost air quality sensors, have the potential to support existing air quality measurement methods by providing data in high time and spatial resolution. These higher-resolution data could provide greater insight into specific events, sources, and local variability. Furthermore, given the potential for differences in selectivities for sensors, leveraging multiple sensors in an array format may even be able to provide insight into which VOCs or types of VOCs are present. During the FRAPPE and DISCOVER-AQ monitoring campaigns, our team was able to co-locate two sensor systems, using metal oxide (MOx) VOC sensors, with a proton-transfer-reaction quadrupole mass spectrometer (PTR-QMS) providing speciated VOC data. This dataset provided the opportunity to explore the ability of sensors to estimate specific VOCs and groups of VOCs in real-world conditions, e.g., dynamic temperature and humidity. Moreover, we were able to explore the impact of changing VOC compositions on sensor performance as well as the difference in selectivities of sensors in order to consider how this could be utilized. From this analysis, it seems that systems using multiple VOC sensors are able to provide VOC estimates at ambient levels for specific VOCs or groups of VOCs. It also seems that this performance is fairly robust in changing VOC mixtures, and it was confirmed that there are consistent and useful differences in selectivities between the two MOx sensors studied. While this study was fairly limited in scope, the results suggest that there is the potential for low-cost VOC sensors to support highly resolved ambient hydrocarbon measurements. The availability of this technology could enhance research and monitoring for public health and communities impacted by air toxics, which in turn could support a better understanding of exposure and actions to reduce harmful exposure.