McKinney's research involves the study of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are carbon-based chemicals that research indicates to be a major contributing factor to the production of ozone, smog and aerosols. Their presence in the air is responsible for reduced visibility and respiratory problems.
"Ultimately the goal of the science is to provide information on the chemistry of these compounds so that regulatory agencies-the EPA, for example-can make the most strategic decisions in terms of putting restrictions in place for improving air quality," she said. "What emissions do you regulate if you want to control smog, for example?"
McKinney is interested in the two sources of VOCs-those created by humans and those occurring naturally in plants-and how VOCs are oxidized and interact with other chemicals at ground level. Much of McKinney's work is conducted in Harvard Forest. In the past her work was limited by less sophisticated techniques and often required that air samples be brought back to the lab for analysis.
Recovery Act Impact: Amherst College
All that has changed with McKinney's recent purchase of a proton transfer reaction time-of-flight mass spectrometer, a rare high tech machine that will enable her to take real-time measurements of airborne VOCs in the field. The mass spectrometer was purchased with a $626K stimulus grant through the National Science Foundation.
"This instrument will allow us to gain a much better and more accurate understanding of what kinds of molecules are in the air we breathe and how they interact with one another," said McKinney. "What we find could have implications for emissions regulations and perhaps even air quality legislation."
McKinney hopes her research will also provide a better understanding of the role of climate on the air we breathe. "We hope this research will give us a better handle on the effect of climate change on plants and their emissions," she said. "How will that, in turn, affect air quality going forward? There's a very close link between the environmental conditions in the atmosphere and what the trees are doing."
"We want to be able to understand that so that we can project-and, who knows, maybe even improve-what the air quality might be like in the future."