The smallest devices can be linked to people's mobile phones
Cyclists, buses, cars and even pedestrians will become mobile pollution detectors in an initiative launched on Tuesday.
Led by Imperial College London, the project will trial three types of mobile, wireless pollution sensor.
These will measure traffic pollutants throughout the UK, and transmit their data via the mobile phone network.
Scientists say such detailed mobile measurements could help improve the management of air quality.
Four UK universities are collaborating on the project, which will deploy 100 sensors in London, Leicester, Gateshead and Cambridge.
Each one will measure up to five different traffic pollutants simultaneously, including carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide.
"We will be able to gather much finer detail about pollution, and really understand its microstructure," Neil Hoose, coordinator of the Mobile Environmental Sensing System Across Grid Environments (Message) project, told BBC News.
He explained that the measurements would be fed into a database that could be accessed "in real time".
"Each sensor has a satellite positioning system, so we could have a bus create a map of the air pollution as it drives along its route," he said.
"This data could be used to provide people with local information - perhaps advice for those with respiratory problems about their journey to work .
"In a wider sense, it could also be used by traffic managers, helping them decide how to phase traffic lights in a way that might reduce traffic pollution."
Larger sensors also measure noise levels and temperature
The smallest sensors can be carried by people and linked up to their own mobile phones. These "electrochemical cells" convert pollutants into a small electric charge.
Larger devices, capable of monitoring temperature and noise levels as well as pollution, have been designed to be attached to lampposts and traffic light poles.
The most sophisticated and largest of the three devices, which is designed to be fitted to vehicles, uses ultraviolet light to differentiate between the pollutants.
"There is a lot we do not know about air quality in our cities and towns because the current generation of large stationary sensors doesn't provide enough information," said the project's director, Professor John Polak, from the Centre for Transport Studies at Imperial College London.
"We envisage a future where hundreds and thousands of mobile sensors are deployed across the country."