Website funds UW Bothell researcher’s coal-train dust study

BOTHELL — Ask just about any scientist. They have far more ideas for things they want to investigate than they can ever get the funding to explore.

That’s the conundrum that Dan Jaffe, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, found himself in last month.

Jaffe is a professor of chemistry and atmospheric sciences. He wanted to study just how much emissions and tiny particles called particulate matter are being produced by passenger and freight train exhaust as well as coal dust from trains in Western Washington.

Little currently is known about the environmental effects caused by the passing trains.

His interest was triggered by a proposal to build a $650 million terminal north of Bellingham to export coal, grain and other material to Asia.

The proposal eventually would create up to 450 jobs, backers say. The trade-off: It also would bring more trains through Western Washington — up to 18 each day through Snohomish County, opponents say.

Jaffe thought there was a fairly simple way to conduct his experiment: Install an air-quality monitor that could measure which particles were caused by diesel exhaust and which from the larger coal dust particles over a four- to six-week period this summer.

A web camera also would be installed to document which trains were passing as the emissions occurred.

With the help of some UW students, he figured the experiment could be conducted for a little more than $18,000.

Compared to multi-million dollar research projects, that’s chump change. Nevertheless, Jaffe was getting little more than a swing-and-a-miss trying to drum up financial interest in the project.

Government agencies weren’t too encouraging, he said. “I was getting a little bit discouraged. I was pretty close to giving up.”

That’s when someone suggested he take a look at an online site, microryza.com, where researchers make public pitches for donations to fund their projects. Musicians, artists and others have used similar “crowd-sourcing” websites, such as Kickstarter, to support their projects.

“I was kind of skeptical at first,” Jaffe said.

His pitch outlining the project, with a promise that donors would be credited in the research, was posted on April 29.

Much to his surprise, on Thursday evening, just 11 days after his project was posted, he was notified that the goal had been met, with 236 people pledging a total of $18,055.

Publicity over his project and the way he raised money to do it have generated a lot of interest, he said.

“I’ve had emails from people telling me how to do it better,” Jaffe said. Their suggestions included adding additional monitoring sites or doing an analysis of the chemistry of coal dust.

He said he’s also had some interest from an environmental agency in a coal-producing state.

With the pledge goal reached far earlier than the July 1 online deadline, Jaffe said on Friday that he’s moving up the start of his research.

Assisted by two or three students at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, he said he hopes to begin collecting information in July.

Measurements may be taken at two different sites. By moving the equipment, information can be collected on whether there are more diesel particulates when trains are moving slowly or if there is any coal dust left behind when the trains are going fast, he said.

Results are expected nine months after the project begins.

“I’ll be pretty mum on releasing it much earlier than that,” Jaffe said. “When the data come in, we have to think about what it means. That’s how science is.

“We need the first shot at it to figure out what it means and to do it in the quiet of the labs.”

Although the fundraising goal has been reached, donors can still make contributions. If enough do, Jaffe said he’s considering adding an additional monitoring site near the Columbia River Gorge.

“There have been reports of coal dust there,” he said. “I think scientific measurements would be very useful.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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