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Using techniques pioneered in the Netherlands, researchers have found one reason why so much of the world’s fibers are lined with dangerous polyisobutylene, or PIR. The microscopic needles serve as hide-the-drag little holes in the fibers, dragging them behind the clouds of synthetic fibers and letting other particles in. The research is published in this week’s edition of Nature Communications.
Nickel may also be related to PIR, according to the study, though it may have a smaller effect. These compounds are responsible for the so-called “dusty air effect,” reducing environmental purity. Nickel is also found in manmade fibers, including a lookalike chemical called manganese.
Since the fibers are particularly thick and flexible, they are ideal for trapping dust. They are also highly absorbent and able to absorb up to three times their weight in water.
Rather than individual fibers, the tiny “dust shapers” serve as air filters, steadily sucking air into the fibers over a couple of years, the study says.
To track the PIR masses for the study, air over the Atlantic was pumped up to satellite altitudes, then lowered when they reached their destination. If the particles only stayed in their brush-like shapes for a few days, the researchers probably weren’t able to see them. If they were to keep growing for a few months, however, they would grow much larger.
Because the air is so windy, however, the PIR droplets also grew, in a buffer layer of surrounding particles. While the air was funneled into the PIRs, the air nearest the PIRs was polluted with different particles.
The data also revealed how PIR is distributed across the world. Since there is little variation in the U.S., it is more often found in dense urban areas, it is common on European and African shores, and in some places it can be found even in the poor lands of south Asia.
“A lot of what we know about the global environment is based on limited environmental data,” study co-author Dr. Boomer Vrakoff said in a statement.
He is a professor of energy engineering at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and leads the Global Microfiber Impact project, which examined PIR impacts on the environment worldwide.
Liang Zhang of the Institute of Environmental Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai, and the study’s other authors set out to understand and quantify how far these PIR droplets travel in the air, one of their main goals in the study.
They used multiple techniques to collect data from multiple labs and measure PIR phenomena, including time-lapse video.
“It’s been a very long time since we have had this sort of measurement in the field,” Zertal Grout, a co-author of the study and associate professor of physics and mathematics at the University of Washington, said in a statement.
The PIR droplets they found continued to grow for around a month, on average, with the largest clusters most frequent in China, India, northern Africa and Australia.
Researchers had previously predicted PIR to have a large global footprint due to their lifetime, but they couldn’t look past the effects in the air, the study says.