The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and 10 federal, state, tribal and local organizations recently announced the Phase 1 winners of the ‘Cleaner Indoor Air During Wildfires Challenge,’ which is designed to stimulate the advancement of new technologies to clean indoor air during wildfire smoke events and other high pollution days. Among the five Phase 1 winners was the Rutgers Research and Design Initiative (RRDI), including team member Maya Ziab (SEBS’22) who recently graduated with a degree in Environmental Policy, Institutions and Behavior (EPIB.)
The Challenge encourages the development of new approaches, technologies, or technology combinations (termed “solutions”) for keeping indoor air as clean as possible during periods when outdoor fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations are elevated. These tiny particles are a main component of smoke from fires and have been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular health effects, especially in individuals with lung and heart disease.
When smoke from fires is unhealthy, as defined by EPA’s Air Quality Index, the recommendation is to stay indoors, preferably with filtered air and closed windows and doors and to minimize physical activity. However, air cleaning technologies for indoor air have multiple limitations, including their cost to purchase, operate, and maintain. They are also dependent on electrical power, which can be disrupted by wildfires or rolling blackouts. In addition, wildfires often occur in the summer and early fall in regions of the United States where many homes do not have air conditioning, so closing windows can lead to very high indoor temperatures.
The Challenge was offered in two phases.
- Phase 1, launched in 2021, is a theoretical, or design challenge requiring an in-depth written proposal but not requiring development of a prototype. Five Phase 1 winners and three honorable mentions were selected for awards.
- Phase 2, targeted to be launched in 2022, is being developed to further encourage the development of air cleaning technology. First phase winners and honorable mentions will be invited to submit prototypes of their technologies for evaluation in a second phase challenge.
RRDI’s proposal is a novel application of existing industrial technology that would be modified and scaled down for residential use. The team proposes to develop a two-phase air filtration device. The first phase uses a wet-scrubber method to capture particles within aerosolized water droplets followed by a second phase involving a series of stainless-steel wire filters, which are removable and washable. The team anticipates the PM2.5 removal effectiveness will be approximately 94 percent in a 1,200 cubic foot room within one hour of operation. The modular design developed by the team could be adapted to different users and needs. The materials cost for building a prototype is estimated around $100.
“It was such a pleasure to work with an interdisciplinary team on creating this design,” said Maya Ziab (SEBS’21). “In the pursuit of environmental justice and accessibility, our two-phase air filtration device is meant to be as affordable as possible. With climate change causing increased incidents of wildfires across the globe, I hope that our design can help to mitigate the health consequences brought forward by our changing climate and PM2.5.”