On the inherent variability of particulate matter concentrations on small scales and the consequences for miniaturized particle sensors

Paul Maierhofer*, Georg Röhrer, Markus Bainschab, Alexander Bergmann

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Despite all the evident benefits of miniaturized particulate matter (PM) sensors, an inherent drawback exists in the uncertainty and validity of the measurement, which is closely related to the discrete nature of particulates suspended in air. The miniaturization of these devices not only leads to a smaller footprint for the devices themselves but also to a smaller volume of air being sampled. Even if a perfect measurement system is assumed, an uncertainty lies in assigning a supposedly representative particle concentration value to an environment due to the inherent variability of PM concentrations on small scales. This stems from the fact that particles are stochastically distributed in the air, leading to a non-uniform concentration for arbitrarily small volumes. Consequently, an uncertainty exists according to counting statistics, as the number of investigated particles in a small air sample is also low. Depending on the metric, the uncertainty may be augmented, as a small number of particles cannot accurately capture the distribution of particle sizes, especially since the size distribution extends over several orders of magnitude. This distribution related uncertainty is relevant for surface and mass related metrics in addition to the uncertainty resulting from counting statistics. We detected a minor impact from the distribution of the particle mass density, which contributes to the uncertainty for mass-related metrics, such as PM1, PM2.5 and PM10. We investigated the expected measurement uncertainty by analytical means and concluded that the distribution of particle sizes, the sample size and the ambient particle concentration significantly affect the measurement uncertainty for the range of conditions considered. To the best of our knowledge, this uncertainty has not been discussed in the current literature.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)271-280
    Number of pages10
    JournalAerosol and Air Quality Research
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2020


    • Aerosol sampling
    • Measurement uncertainty
    • Miniaturized sensors

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Environmental Chemistry
    • Pollution

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