Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2009 | People

Clearing the Air

By Leah Klevar
A world-renowned UI chemical engineering professor is tackling global pollution problems that affect us all.

The chemistry kit sits in a corner of Professor Gregory Carmichael's office in its original 1960s packaging. Nearby, a Technicolor map of the globe swirls on a computer screen, showing the pollution drifting across Earth in bright swaths of red. The kit and computer modeling program represent the very heart of Carmichael's scholarly quest. They are the principles guiding his globally important research into humans' environmental impact on the planet.

"Everything has chemical origins, which is why chemical engineering is our best hope for solving environmental problems," says Carmichael, who is the Karl Kammermeyer Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering in the University of Iowa College of Engineering—and an internationally recognized expert in the area of air pollution transport. His named professorship, established in 2001 through gifts to the UI Foundation, honors the work of the late Karl Kammermeyer, a UI professor in chemical engineering who was a gifted teacher, researcher, and innovator.

Like Kammermeyer, Carmichael has devoted his entire educational career to first-rate teaching, research, and innovation. The son of a farm-implement salesman and a homemaker, Carmichael grew up in Marengo, Illinois, during a period when the Clean Air Act of 1963 and the Air Quality Act of 1967 were helping to transform public policy—and sentiment. Those changing attitudes were what inspired the idealistic young man to head off to college at Iowa State University with the clear goal of cleaning up the environment.

"I chose chemical engineering in a very calculated way because most of our environmental problems are related to chemicals, and to conquer environmental problems, we have to use technology on the battlefield and develop ways to produce products that are environmentally safe," says Carmichael, who finished his B.S. degree in engineering in 1974 and went on to graduate school at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where the chemical engineering department was conducting environmental research.

Since then, this UI professor, who began teaching at Iowa in 1978, has spent a professional lifetime tackling some of the world's most troubling and dangerous air pollution problems—from acid rain to Arctic haze and brown clouds to smog. Carmichael notes that 30 percent of deaths in the United States are due to a host of respiratory-related diseases—and cardiac arrests—linked to air pollution.

"There are many diseases with strong ties to air quality," Carmichael says. "In addition, air pollution is closely connected to global climate change, playing a significant role in glacier melt."

It is these kinds of facts and figures that fuel Carmichael's passion for reducing levels of human-produced air pollution—caused by everything from vehicle emissions and coal-powered energy to heavy manufacturing plants and burning cattle dung. He is quick to note that air pollution is a global problem that must be solved using global solutions, since it travels so swiftly from one hemisphere to another.

"The Pearl River Delta Region of China has become a manufacturing hot spot for U.S. companies, and it certainly causes environmental problems for China. However, relocating hasn't solved our pollution problems, either," says Carmichael. "We're like campers who built our latrine upriver from our campsite: we're still breathing that polluted air as it flows back into the U.S. from west to east."

Carmichael wants to change the air we breathe. He was the first scientist to develop an innovative computer modeling program using the principles of fluid dynamics and air transport to analyze pollution in the atmosphere at regional scales. He works with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the United Nations on global pollution research. He is participating in a National Academy of Sciences study on the significance of the global transport of air pollutants. And he is an experienced international traveler who frequently advises other countries on environmental issues.

"Professor Carmichael has shown me what it takes to be a world-class researcher," says Bhupesh Adhikary, 98BSE, 07MS, 08PhD, who has collaborated with Carmichael in both the lab and the field. The two first met in Adhikary's native Nepal, where Carmichael was conducting research. A quietly intense man, with a salt-and-pepper beard and scholarly glasses, Carmichael is the reason Adhikary attended the UI—and went on to pursue a doctoral degree in biochemical engineering.

"I want to use my degree to enhance the science and technology that Nepal still lacks, and I have been so fortunate to learn from Professor Carmichael," says Adhikary. "Our team tracked plumes of mineral dust and black carbon from Asia to the U.S. using special research aircraft. We also have traveled to remote places like Fairbanks, Alaska, to use our computer models to plan flight paths for NASA airplanes measuring pollution."

Such projects often take the professor, and his graduate students, around the world. Carmichael—who has a wife, Candace, and two grown children in Iowa City—divides his time between family, teaching, research, and travel. He makes numerous trips to Asia and is now working with Shanghai to help it prepare to host the World Expo in 2010, which will focus on the theme of "Sustainable Cities."

"When I first came to the UI, I was the only person doing this kind of research," says Carmichael. "That forced me to interact and collaborate with people all over the world, which has tremendously benefited my work."

Though he is now a seasoned teacher, researcher, and global collaborator, Carmichael remains true to his younger self's ideals: "I'm still an optimist. I believe it's not too late to clean up our air. We can change our public policy and establish new regulations. We need to do it, and I believe we will. It's human nature."