Students Build Air Purifiers for Wildfire Smoke, COVID-19

Students Build Air Purifiers for Wildfire Smoke, COVID-19 featured image

For many adults, the year 2020 was the most chaotic in memory. From political upheaval to the COVID-19 pandemic to uncontainable wildfires that ravaged millions of acres, crises dominated the U.S. news cycles. Amid the public discourse surrounding both COVID-19 and wildfires, the same question seemed to resurface: What steps can we take to breathe more safely? With help from researchers at UC Davis, a group of junior high students in Sacramento is tackling that question head-on. 

“It is really important to empower students and help them understand indoor and outdoor pollution sources, and how to measure and improve indoor air quality,” explained project lead Theresa Pistochini in a UC Davis press release. The research team from UC Davis Energy and Efficiency Institute (EEI) partnered with science teachers at Sacramento’s Rio Tierra Junior High School with a lofty objective: teach 150 8th grade students how to make air purifiers. 

Over the course of two days, teachers and researchers taught students how to construct their own do-it-yourself portable air purifiers using a Corsi-Rosenthal cube design. The design has two primary components, a box fan and four air cleaning filters. The filters have a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating of 13, meaning they will capture many small particles, but may struggle to capture fine particulate matter between 0.3 and 1.0 microns in size. 

Each air purifier costs about $75 in materials to make, and researchers say the purifiers will work about as well as commercially available products selling for $200 — a price difference that means huge savings for schools who want to implement similar projects. Upon completion, the 30 air purifiers were distributed to each classroom on the Rio Tierra Junior High School campus. 

“We are always trying to relate science to current events and students’ lives,” explained science teacher Amber Mitchell in the press release. Amber Mitchell and Kathryn Graf, both science teachers at Rio Tierra Junior High School, helped coordinate the project with the UC Davis researchers. Mitchell continued, “There’s not much more relatable right now than making air purifiers to help our school.”

The necessity of clean air (or the lack of it) isn’t a message that’s lost on students, especially students belonging to the Gen Z generation. Data from the Pew Research Center indicates that Gen Z youth are acutely aware of environmental issues and more willing than other generations — even millennials — to take bold action to address it. 

Air Purifiers for Wildfire Smoke

Breathing wildfire smoke can irritate the respiratory system, reduce lung function, cause infection and even trigger cardiovascular events like heart attacks. Wildfire smoke is composed of gasses and fine particles that are released when wood and other materials burn. Fine particles pose a particular risk to human health because they’re small enough to get lodged in the lungs and even enter the bloodstream.

Although wildfire smoke is obviously more concentrated outdoors than indoors, it can easily travel inside a building and endanger its occupants. Wildfire smoke can enter a home, school or any other building in a number of ways, including the following: 

  • Natural ventilation that occurs when someone opens a door or window
  • Mechanical ventilation, which happens when devices like the bathroom fan vent to the outdoors or HVAC system with a fresh air intake
  • Infiltration, the process by which outdoor air enters a building through cracks, joints or any other small opening

Even newly constructed homes are vulnerable to wildfire smoke, which is why it’s important to take every measure to improve indoor air quality. The best air purifier for wildfire smoke is one that can effectively address fine particulate matter, the primary ingredient in wildfire smoke. 

Air Purifiers for COVID-19 

For the staff at Rio Tierra Junior High School, their proximity to wildfires wasn’t their only concern. As the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over yet and schools are among some of its most effective breeding grounds, school principal Adam Sinor wanted to emphasize that the air purifiers could also address the virus. 

“With the wildfires and COVID-19, and the way COVID is spread through aerosols, it’s a way kids can take action to make their internal environment better and learn science and engineering at the same time,” suggested Sinor in the press release. Principal Sinor was a proponent of the project and visited the classrooms to see the air purifiers in action. 

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials focused on educating the public about transmission prevention through social distancing, isolating and masking. Now that school is back in session, it’s essential to address the issue from a different angle. Luckily, there is plenty of research that suggests high-quality air purifiers may be able to reduce or deactivate airborne viruses

Viruses and bacteria are extremely small particles, although they are often spread through bigger aerosolized droplets emitted from a cough or sneeze. Not every air purifier or air cleaner is capable of reducing or deactivating viruses, although many claim to be. If you’re trying to find the best air purifier for viruses, make certain it is capable of addressing fine particulate matter and utilizes a multi-tiered approach. 

Air Purifiers Improve Indoor Air Quality

As education surrounding air quality issues increases, so do the pressures from which they originate: wildfires, pollution, new diseases. However, researchers and innovators like the team at Rio Tierra Junior High School are meeting the challenges with boldness and creativity. 

“Air quality is such an important topic that historically has not received much attention," concludes Pistochini in the press release. She adds, “I hope that our outreach to students will encourage them to think about the air they breathe, and consider engineering and environmental science as a career path." 

At Air Oasis, we love stories about young people using scientific research to meet new, complex challenges. Our team of researchers works hard to design and manufacture the most effective air purifiers on the market. Interested in air purifiers for your home, office or school? Visit our online store to learn more about our high-quality air purifiers.  

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