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An innovative device to measure air quality will enable monitoring of pollution in homes and outdoors quickly and affordably.
If you had to create an imaginary podium of causes of mortality with alcohol, unsafe water, or air pollution at the top, which would it be? A WHO report published in 2022 indicates that the pollution of the air we breathe reduces life expectancy globally by 2.2 years. Its impact is three times greater than that of alcohol or unsafe water consumption and even slightly greater than that of tobacco, which has an average impact of 1.9 years on life expectancy. The WHO estimates that four million premature deaths occur yearly due to this type of pollution. No wonder they call it “the silent killer.” Worst of all, to a greater or lesser extent, air quality problems affect 99% of the world’s population.
Reducing air pollution is one part of the equation – the other is the development of monitoring and purification technologies. Recent work at MIT has focused on developing a low-cost, 3D-printed device that measures air pollution as a first step in controlling it. The best part is that the project is open source and has been made available to the public.
You might think that air quality is a subjective matter. However, an objective index, the AQI (Air Quality Index), establishes objective parameters. Thus, air quality is measured by the proportion of suspended particles with a diameter of PM2.5, i.e., equal to or less than 2.5 micrometers. The AQI scale ranges from 0 to 500 PM2.5, and measurements above 50 PM2.5 can already adversely affect health. Existing global air quality data are obtained from satellites and open-source data.
Any large city today has sensors to measure air quality. However, there are many places where this technology is conspicuous by its absence. And even in large cities, measurements are unreliable because they are only taken in a handful of locations. Researchers at MIT want to mitigate this problem with a project they have dubbed Flatburn. Essentially, it involves the development of a device that measures air quality and can be made with a 3D printer or easily accessible parts that allow hundreds or thousands of sensors to be installed. In addition to assembly instructions, the project includes software and instructions for interpreting the data obtained.
These small air quality sensors include a rechargeable battery via a grid connection, a photovoltaic panel, and a memory card that stores the measurements. The original idea was conceived in 2017 and, finally, in 2021, a pilot test was conducted in New York City over four weeks by installing five mobile detectors. They then compared the results with official measurements.
The researchers verified that the devices detect a slightly lower concentration of particulate matter. Still, by cross-checking the data obtained with other variables, such as meteorological information, they achieved accuracy similar to those of professional air quality sensors. The last phase of the project has consisted of publishing all manufacturing and usage instructions as public domain information.
In theory, anyone with some knowledge of 3D printing can now create their own sensor to accurately measure the air quality of their home or the street where they live, an essential aspect as air pollution registers significant differences between relatively close locations. If you are interested in making your own device, check out this website for all the details.
The researchers’ ultimate goal is to democratize environmental data as part of what they have dubbed the City Scanner project. This initiative equips public vehicles, such as garbage trucks, buses, or ambulances with sensors to provide information to understand better urban parameters ranging from pollution to heat islands.
In critical air pollution situations, a mask can always be used to filter the particles we breathe. But what measures can be taken at home? Particle filtering devices can be installed at home, but one of the most affordable and sustainable ways is through plants. As explained in this article, the Devil's Ivy is one of the most effective.
In addition, scientists have enhanced their ability to improve air quality through genetic engineering, eliminating up to 82 % of chloroform particles and 75 % of benzene particles within a few days. The experts behind this initiative have dubbed the plants “green livers” because of their ability to purify toxins. Not surprisingly, the use of moss to combat air pollution in large cities has also been explored.