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Three Texas A&M students create portable air purifier prototype capable of deactivating coronavirus

Published: Dec. 9, 2020 at 11:11 PM CST
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - Three Texas A&M students created a portable air purifier prototype they say can deactivate the coronavirus, utilizing technology that could change the way people approach solving problems in future pandemics.

Not long after the pandemic hit the United States, Texas A&M set up the Aggies Against COVID-19 program, a virtual competition asking students to solve pandemic-related problems. That’s when Valentina Alarcon, Juan Cuellar, and Leticia Gomes teamed up and asked themselves what’s the biggest concern in the pandemic receiving the least attention.

“We found that airborne COVID isn’t a thing that is really addressed right now,” Alarcon, a senior nuclear engineering major, said. “I think the only thing that we’re doing as a society is wearing masks and keeping six feet apart.”

After conducting surveys discovering this was a concerning aspect of the pandemic shared by many others, they created a portable air purifier prototype called Aira that uses bipolar ionization to deactivate, or effectively kill, coronavirus particles.

“It releases both positive and negative ions, and the reason that’s important is it’ll essentially deprive that virus of hydrogen atoms,” sophomore business major Gomes said. “It releases H2O back into the air, and without the hydrogen atoms, the virus pretty much becomes deactivated.”

The students say one type of air filtration technology used in some places right now is negative ionization. This form is less ideal because negative ionization releases only negative ions into the air that latch onto particles making them so heavy they fall to the closest surface. But because no deactivation occurs in terms of COVID-19, people can still be at risk if what’s closest is a table or other commonly-touched surface and potentially infect themselves or others if they touch it.

Regarding Aira, the idea is that a small, portable air filter placed close enough to a group of people, say in a classroom, restaurant, or bar, would kill the virus before reaching somebody else, eliminating the need to wear a mask.

“A portable device would kind of standardize your protection against the virus,” Gomes said. “With masks, there are a lot of differences within how they’re made, how they’re used, or if people are washing them correctly, so my protection from COVID-19 might be different if I wear a different type of mask. This device would standardize that and protect everyone equally.”

The only problem is bipolar ionization technology is yet to be produced on that small a scale, which is why there’s still more work to be done before Aira can achieve real-world use. Cuellar says even when the pandemic is over, there will still be demand for this type of technology which will spur scientists and engineers to continue pursuing its development. He also says bipolar ionization is also capable of neutralizing other airborne toxins, not just coronavirus.

“It’s definitely going to impact a lot of people because there are a lot of us looking into the future who are going to take air quality as a larger concern,” Cuellar, a senior industrial and systems engineering major, said.

The students’ work on this concept earned them a top ten finish in the Aggies Against COVID-19 competition, which automatically admitted them into the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps Site Fellows Program. That’s where Alarcon, Cuellar, and Gomes were able to conduct consumer discovery surveys and research that could further help Aira materialize into something real. Alarcon says some of the things they found from those efforts is that there would be a high enough demand for the product to sell if it were priced around $30.

“We did a survey that we sent out to a number of people,” Cuellar said. “The top areas where we received a lot of responses were schools, bars, restaurants, and other indoor places areas where people spend a lot of time.”

“I think when we were starting with Aggies Against COVID-19, we had the idea of putting it in the HVAC system maybe for homes or hospitals,” Alarcon said. “But when we went to the NSF program, we realized that one key target market would be students and universities. For them, something portable would be more beneficial, so that’s when we came up with that idea.”

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