‘I still hear statements that say climate change is a future problem’

28 Aug 2019

Image: © rodimovpavel/Stock.adobe.com

Christos Fountoukis of the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute is trying to improve the wellbeing of humans through studying air pollution.

After receiving his PhD from the School of Chemical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology in the US in 2007, Dr Christos Fountoukis became a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow between 2008 and 2012. He later took up a role as a project scientist at the University of Patras in Greece and was also an adjunct assistant professor at the Cyprus Institute.

Fountoukis is now based at the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI) water centre – as part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University – where he leads the atmospheric modelling team as a senior research scientist.

Over the past 15 years, he has participated in numerous large-scale integrated projects of the EU and the US on air pollution and the climate crisis.

Christos Fountoukis smiling in a blue suit and striped tie against a grey background.

Dr Christos Fountoukis, senior research scientist, QEERI. Image: QEERI

What inspired you to become a researcher?

It was my love for chemistry combined with a desire to travel the world. When I was in the middle of my chemical engineering undergraduate studies in Greece, a professor took five minutes out of one of our lectures to tell us about top US universities offering full scholarships to qualified undergraduate students from all over the world to pursue research-based postgraduate studies in chemical engineering.

He briefly explained all the requirements needed to secure this – that was it for me. I spent the rest of my undergraduate studies making sure I prepared a strong application package.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Early on in my studies, I realised I wanted to work on topics related to the environment and pollution as I felt my work could have a direct impact on the wellbeing of humans. My first research project during my PhD was related to climate change.

The next one was on air pollution and more specifically atmospheric particles. Those years were very demanding in terms of work and effort, however, they shaped and determined my approach to research.

Currently, I am working on air quality research in large urban environments, dust storm forecasting in desert climates and air pollution impacts on health and climate. We have a small but very active team working on advanced simulations of atmospheric processes leading to air pollution and their related sources. We’re also exploring efficient ways to mitigate poor air quality while limiting climate change for more sustainable urban environments.

Our goal is to further advance our modelling activities and establishing our forecasting system as a World Meteorological Organisation SDS-WAS (Sand and Dust Storm Warning and Advisory System) regional centre for the Middle East.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Based on the latest report from the World Health Organization, air pollution is the cause of over one-third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer, chronic respiratory disease and one-quarter of deaths from ischaemic heart disease. Today, due to rapid urbanisation in recent years, nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Living in the sun and dust-belt region of the world, part of my work focuses on how atmospheric dust interacts with solar radiation and how it affects the performance of photovoltaic panels. We are developing advanced computational tools for high accuracy of solar radiation forecasting that can be directly used by the renewable energy market.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

My responsibility as a researcher is to always look for an answer, a solution to the scientific problems that confront us. Once this is successfully done, the actual implementation of this solution is often a different story and sometimes a very challenging one.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

The biggest misconceptions in this research field are mostly with regard to climate change. For example, I still hear or see statements such as, “Climate change is a future problem” or, “Global warming isn’t real as it is still very cold in some places”. Public awareness is important in order to address these misconceptions, as is a more intense effort to translate scientific research outcomes to an easy-to-understand language for the general public.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

For certain parts of the world, I would like to see more active international collaborations in the area of air pollution as this is a problem without borders. Also, I would like to see more targeted research on the effects of air pollution on human health.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.