New Sensor Shows Electric Nature of Dust Devils

Electric field sensor could help in climate studies and electronics manufacturing too

2 min read

A team at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, recently made a breakthrough that could help climate scientists fill in one piece missing from today’s climate models. The group, led by Nilton Renno, has shown that electric fields as strong as 160 kilovolts per meter could double the amount of dust that makes it into the atmosphere. Dust is part of the family of aerosols—suspended particles or molecules in the air—which includes water vapor and soot from coal combustion. Aerosols absorb or reflect radiation, either warming or cooling regions of the earth.

Renno, an associate professor of atmospheric, oceanic, and space sciences, had predicted years earlier that electricity might be a missing link, when he noticed that dust devils, the spinning vortexes of air that look like miniature tornadoes, had strong electric fields. But he and Jasper Kok, a doctoral student, proved the extent of electricity’s role in lifting dust into the air only after they created a new kind of electric-field sensor—one that measures a field’s strength without disrupting the field and is immune to the effects of ion currents and the negative charges carried by wind-blown particles colliding with the sensor.

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Greg Mably

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