Microparticles: The Answers Are Blowing in the Wind Tunnel at Trent
Over the years, Trent School of Environment Dr. Cheryl McKenna Neuman has developed a well-earned reputation as a go-to expert in aeolian science – which focuses on processes associated with wind and, in particular, small particles that are transported by the wind. Her knowledge, skills, and experience have earned her international recognition and are highly sought after in collaborations with scientists around the globe.
Most recently, Professor McKenna-Neuman received the International Society of Aeolian Research (ISAR) Distinguished Career Award in honour of her decades of work and contributions to the field.
“News of the award was quite a surprise to say the least. It is incredibly humbling to be recognized in this way by colleagues who have had such an enormous influence on my work,” says Prof. McKenna-Neuman. “My path into an academic research career in aeolian processes was not a carefully laid out plan. I was a graduate student looking for problems to work on and I took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves.”
Now after three decades of perseverance and hard work, Prof. McKenna Neuman is a leading scientist in her field whose research findings are published regularly.
"My work tries to link the fate of these particles to their physical characteristics and behavior in a turbulent airflow,” says Prof. McKenna Neuman. “Essentially, our goal is to examine the pathways by which these particles enter the atmosphere, their behavior while in transit, and finally, how and where they end up as a deposit.”
A custom-built research facility
One of Prof. McKenna-Neuman's most significant and long-standing contributions to the field is the design and operation of the Trent Environmental Wind Tunnel (TEWT), which is situated in a custom-built environmental chamber. This unique facility allows scientists to fully control the climate conditions for an experiment, such as temperature, humidity, and wind speed.
The world-class research facility is specifically engineered to simulate aeolian transport processes, allowing study of the physics of particle motion, wind erosion, dust emission, air quality, and climate effects. Research findings from simulations in the TEWT lab have been used to assist industries, such as mining, to manage air quality on their worksites.
The TEWT advantage
Prof. McKenna Neuman’s work in the wind tunnel continues to push the boundaries of aeolian science.
She is about to embark on a three-year study into microplastics transport in atmospheric flows, supported by a $242,500 NSERC Alliance International Collaboration Grant. Prof. McKenna Neuman and her team have been collaborating with researchers in the U.K. to simulate airborne transport of microplastics—fragments of any type of plastic less than 5 mm in length—and evaluate their degradation in the environment.
“Plastics are an inseparable component of modern daily life, present in the fibers of our clothing and the devices we use. The properties of synthetic plastic particles are also far more complex than sedimentary particles. They are capable of being molded, extruded, or blown to form objects of almost any shape or size. They are largely resistant to corrosion or biodegradation, good insulators, and lightweight yet relatively strong,” says Prof. McKenna-Neuman. “Our experiments so far in TEWT suggest that microplastic fibers are preferentially transported as compared to quartz particles, travelling with higher frequency and over greater distances than expected.”
Training at Trent
Working and teaching at Trent gives Prof. McKenna Neuman the opportunity to train graduate students and early career researchers, something that she loves to do.
“I don't have a top-down vision of operations in my lab,” says Prof. McKenna Neuman. "Every project has a new set of questions that we are sorting out together. Every researcher who comes through the door offers a different perspective and unique skills that are highly valued by the team. Success stories like that of Dr. Patrick O’Brien, TEWT research associate, make my job incredibly rewarding."
Posted on March 14, 2023