HVAC stands for “heating, ventilation, and air conditioning”. HVAC systems can be found everywhere from in single-family homes to offices to submarines! HVAC systems provide better air quality for indoor spaces and remove moisture, smoke, odors, heat, dust, airborne bacteria, carbon dioxide, and other gases as well as providing temperature control and oxygen replenishment. In today’s global landscape, with the COVID-19 pandemic still not wholly behind us, the need for efficient HVAC systems that not only help filter allergens like dust and harmful gases like carbon dioxide out of the air in our workplaces and homes, but that assist in mitigating the risk presented by airborne pathogens has become more and more pressing. However, older or less efficient HVAC systems can pose a threat to the safety, health and wellbeing of a building’s occupants. According to Dr. Alireza Nouri, the principal investigator (PI) of the CIC Project titled A Robust and Low-Cost Technology for Risk Mitigation of Pathogenic Infection in HVAC Systems, “…Ventilation ducts can serve as conduits for the circulation and spread of infectious diseases in [a] building. Further, all ventilation filters entrap and accumulate microbes [that can] turn the filter into a breeding ground for fungi and bacteria…[making] filter disposal hazardous…[and] any change or disturbance in the airflow may release some of [the microbes trapped in the filter] into the environment.”

Efforts are currently being made to improve the function of HVAC systems in buildings, but the solutions that currently exist aren’t necessarily applicable to all buildings. “In the past, ultraviolet light has been employed to reduce biological contaminants in the air. However, the installation of existing technology in [a building’s] ventilation system is not easily possible and is limited by the ventilation system’s design.” Dr. Nouri told the CIC. “For more conventional ventilation systems, such as duct-based systems, installing such units is often costly and laborious. Hence, such units are seldom used in ventilation systems [outside of healthcare facilities].” The research team involved in this project aims to create a component that can supplement existing HVAC systems’ ventilation filters to improve their overall function, and their aim is to create a solution that can be installed in existing and new ventilation systems while also being more efficient and more cost-effective than existing ultraviolet systems.

This project is focused on the creation of a compact and economical device that works by trapping microbes in ventilation filters and destroying them via the application of heat. The aim of this research project is to conduct proof of concept tests, build a working prototype, and ultimately develop efficient and cost-effective units that can be implemented in a wide variety of applications and building types, thereby reducing the risk of disease transmission by airborne microorganisms.

The product of this research will be technology of value to the more vulnerable sectors of society, including low-income families, senior citizens in group housing, hospital patients and workers, and persons with autoimmune deficiencies—all of whom can benefit from a cleaner environment with a lowered risk of contracting illnesses through the spread of airborne pathogens. One of the researchers’ main goals is to work alongside industry partner Engineered Air to make the proposed technology a part of the company’s future product portfolio for residential, commercial, and heathcare buildings. Guidelines to the public and research community for optimal disinfection of Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (or MERV)-rated filters for various HVAC operating conditions, experimental data, and filter efficiency and design charts will also be produced and made available to researchers and construction practitioners.

Dr. Nouri’s team is currently working with a prototype of their device and are hard at work refining the design with the assistance of a wind tunnel rig.

Looking for more details? Visit this project’s research page.

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