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Start-Up’s Air Quality Technology to Clean City Areas

Mexico City smog

Aerial view of smog over Mexico City in December 2010 (Fidel Gonzalez, Wikimedia Commons)

10 November 2015. A start-up company is licensing research from University of Copenhagen in Denmark to develop a technology for removing air pollution from city neighborhoods. The air cleaning technology, known as gas phase advanced oxidation, is a product of the atmospheric chemistry lab led by Matthew Johnson, who also serves as chief scientist for the new spin-off enterprise Airlabs Denmark, also in Copenhagen.

Improving air quality up to now requires static filters to capture gaseous chemicals, which also require some form of prior treatment since gas molecules float in small concentrations in the air, even in highly polluted regions. Johnson’s research discovered a technique for changing those hard-to-contain gas molecules into particles, like dust, which are much easier to collect.

Johnson’s gas phase advanced oxidation borrows from the natural interaction of ozone with polluting chemicals in the air. A layer of ozone in the upper atmosphere protects the atmosphere closer to earth from ultraviolet rays. At the earth’s surface, however, ozone combines and reacts with chemicals to form compounds, some of them found in smog and harmful to human health, crops, and wildlife.

In gas phase advanced oxidation, ozone mixes with chemicals in the air, which are then exposed to ultraviolet rays. This combination of ozone and UV rays changes the gas molecules to dust-like particles, which are much easier to contain, collect, and manage. Johnson says the technology makes it possible to control polluting chemicals with little energy and without a chimney.

Johnson and colleague Jan Arlemark patented the gas phase advanced oxidation technology in 2009, which University of Copenhagen first licensed to the company Infuser Denmark, a developer of industrial pollution control systems (Johnson serves on the company’s board of directors.). Infuser’s systems target specific, known types of pollutants being generated by factories, both for emissions control and improving indoor air quality in work places.

Airlabs, however, targets urban air pollution, a somewhat more complex problem. In cities, unhealthy air can come from any number of sources, such as automobiles, coal-fired power plants, or in some regions heaters and cooking stoves burning wood or charcoal. Systems being developed by Airlabs are designed to work with these multiple sources, and aim to provide clean-air zones in defined areas of cities, such as shopping districts or playgrounds.

While Airlabs systems will serve specific clean-air zones, Johnson says he intends to get Airlabs and Infuser working together to provide more comprehensive city-wide air quality solutions. “We do not want to just sell a small black box which removes pollution from a limited area,” says Johnson in a university statement. “Ideally we want to develop and sell all-encompassing solutions which secure that you can breathe wherever you are in the cities that buy our solutions.”

Johnson tells more about gas phase advanced oxidation in the following video.

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