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The sky's the limit
Author: Melissa Steineger
Posted: June 1, 2009

Professor James PankowTHE ANNOUNCEMENT that he'd been named to the most prestigious organization in his field came via FedEx in February.

Opening the unassuming envelope, James Pankow learned he was now Oregon's only active professor in the National Academy of Engineering. Actually, "prestigious" barely covers it.

For an engineer, election to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) is a little like earning a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. However, few actors advise the federal government on policy questions in science and technology. Nationwide, the NAE includes a scant 2,400 members—just 19 from Oregon. Among its ranks are astronaut Neil Armstrong, businessman Lee Iacocca, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Membership is the highest professional distinction available for engineers.

Pankow, needless to say, was wowed.

"It's a very big honor," he says. "The way you are elected (by members of the academy) is recognition of work you've done in your lifetime—it's a lifetime achievement award, if you will."

Lifetime is about right.

Twenty years ago, Pankow developed a groundbreaking theory that predicts how toxic and other compounds adhere to particles in the air. That theory is crucial to current climate change research. And his ongoing research in air and water pollution continues to contribute to scientific understanding of pollution. He received the 1999 American Chemical Society Award for Creative Advances in Environmental Science and Technology and the 2005 Haagen-Smit Prize from the editors of Atmospheric Environment for his work.

AS THE NAE HONOR highlights, Pankow is on the forefront of research into water and air pollution that will factor in addressing climate change.

One area of interest is the chemical properties of atmospheric particulates—in other words, what makes smog. Such particles in the air "form like toxic dew," Pankow says. They affect public health, the earth's absorption of light, even cloud formation. Yet what they are and how they interact is barely understood.

To know how to deal with such toxic dew, scientists first must understand how it forms and how it is dispersed, among other things. In fact, the International Panel on Climate Change underscored the problem when it identified airborne particles as the biggest unknown factor in climate change. Pankow is working to change that.

Specifically, he is looking at chemical thermodynamics—the chemical equations that govern how the particles form. After all, if you know how they add up, you stand a better chance of figuring out how to subtract them.

Pankow, who came to PSU in 2008 from Oregon Health & Science University, holds joint appointments to the departments of Chemistry and Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed publications and four books.

And if all that's not enough, Pankow is one of the world's foremost authorities on nicotine chemistry in tobacco smoke, serving as an expert witness for prosecutors during the tobacco trials of the 1990s.

TODAY, HE'S LEADING a national effort supported by the U.S. Geological Survey to identify the next generation of contaminants in water. Scientists routinely monitor and measure a few hundred known chemicals in the Earth's water supply. But in the U.S. alone, some 3,000 chemicals are produced each year in volumes of more than 1 million pounds each. Are they harmful? Not harmful? No one really knows.

"You don't want to be surprised by what's in the water—you want to know what's there regardless of whether someone thinks it's toxic," says Pankow, "and some of the 3,000 chemicals are toxic. We're trying to figure which are a high priority."

Melissa Steineger, is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Portland State Magazine. She wrote the article "Present Perfect" in the winter 2009 issue.

Photo by Kelly James