Breathe easier - smart sensors for healthier indoor air
Stuffy office environments and poor air quality in schools, hospitals and factories could soon be a distant memory thanks to low-cost smart sensor and ventilation-control technology capable of intelligently detecting and removing hazardous airborne substances. The technology was developed through EU-funded research.
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Indoor and outdoor air pollution is estimated to account for more than half a million premature deaths in Europe each year. Inside buildings, the accumulation of chemical vapours from furniture, carpets, paints and cleaning agents has been linked to cardio-vascular diseases, asthma, allergies and lung cancer, as well as a variety of less serious health effects such as drowsiness and headaches a phenomenon known as sick building syndrome.
Detecting and removing hazardous airborne compounds is therefore a critical health concern, especially as people today spend more than 80 % of their time indoors whether at home, at work or at school.
The EU-funded SENSIndoor project has developed a commercially ready state-of-the-art solution to the problem of indoor air quality, using nanotechnology-based sensors to enable smart ventilation systems that automatically supply fresh air to individual rooms as and when needed.
Today, the balance between indoor air quality and energy savings is strongly biased towards low energy consumption, as energy cost is easy to measure and CO2 reduction is a major goal worldwide, says project coordinator Andreas Schütze at Saarland University in Germany. Optimised ventilation strategies can greatly reduce power consumption in buildings leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions and lower costs for the citizens, while also ensuring air quality and protecting the health of occupants.
Accurate air quality monitoring at low cost
The SENSIndoor approach harnesses innovations in several key aspects of air quality sensor systems, incorporating micro-sensor technologies with a novel pre-concentrator concept to improve detection. The pre-concentrator uses metal-organic framework material to collect targeted hazardous volatile organic compounds and release them on heating, much like a sponge absorbing a trickle of water and releasing it when squeezed.
This enables highly accurate detection and ongoing monitoring of hazardous compounds even at tiny concentrations in the air. Software intelligently analyses the data to achieve required air quality and ventilation performance levels, which can be recalibrated and adapted to specific needs on a room-by-room basis.
The highly sensitive SENSIndoor system can detect hazardous volatile organic compounds, primarily benzene, formaldehyde and naphthalene, at parts per billion concentration levels in indoor air selectively against a complex background of other organic and inorganic gases, says Schütze.
The compact SENSIndoor unit, housing the main components, is little larger than a light switch, but nonetheless provides powerful features to enhance air quality through dynamic and autonomous control of building ventilation systems at low cost and low power consumption, Schütze says.
The SENSIndoor project partners, including several European small and medium enterprises, are preparing to commercialise the technology, with each inexpensive sensor unit expected to retail for around EUR 100, generating a potential market worth several hundred million euros.
The system, which has undergone successful field trials within the project, is currently being tested by external experts including the EU Joint Research Centre to provide an independent performance evaluation that should contribute to market adoption. Project partners are also actively contributing to several follow-up projects and exploring additional applications for the technology.
Beyond indoor air quality, the SENSIndoor technology can address other highly relevant markets such as monitoring outdoor air pollution, enhancing safety and security, enabling early warning of industrial accidents or terrorist threats and even contributing to medical applications such as cancer screening based on exhaled breath, Schütze says.