If you’re lucky enough not to have been one of the many self-isolating victims of the pingdemic, chances are you’re in the process of slowly transitioning back to office life. While there are merits on both sides of the WFH vs WFW debate, one thing none of us are missing is the air pollution that comes with a return to commuting.
This month marks 65 years since the UK’s 1956 Clean Air Act, but according to a study by Imperial College London, in 2019 air pollution was estimated to have contributed to as many as 3,600 to 4,100 deaths in the capital.
With this in mind, London-based industrial designer Kevin Chiam has come up with a way for commuters to protect themselves. His 3D-printed wearable air purifier has been designed to remove air pollution from around the user using water vapour.
Airtomo is a small clip-on device that can be attached to a bag, pocket, or shoe, for around £40 a piece.
Chiam designed the product specifically to combat the air pollution on the London Underground while studying on the Innovation Design Engineering programme at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. He plans to begin selling it next year.
Particulate pollution on the Tube can be up to 30 times higher than the levels in roadside air, depending on the line. This is due to the lack of fresh air, trains’ braking systems, and old infrastructure.
“Deep level tube stations, such as the Bakerloo or Victoria line, operate smaller trains inside narrow tunnels. This means that delivery of fresh air becomes challenging. This combined with poor ventilation and accumulation of pollutants has led to heavy pollution over time,” Chiam tells the Evening Standard.
“Old tunnels tend to get dirty due to accumulation of dirt, grime and dust over time. Ironically, cleaning them can be counter constructive because doing so stirs up small harmful particles that have settled.”
The purifier works by emitting tiny water droplets which help to bind particulate matter (pollutants) to form larger aggregates. These aggregates become too heavy to suspend in the air and thus fall to the ground, removing the harmful particles from the air we breathe. They can then simply be swept away.
Designed to be used on the go, Airtomo is charged with a micro-USB cable and can be replenished with water wherever necessary.
The water vapour is fine enough that it doesn’t get the user’s clothes damp, Chiam explains. “On the Tube, where humidity levels are low, your clothes should stay dry even after prolonged usage of the device. Also the water droplets are sized between 9 and 20 microns which means that the released vapour is dry to the touch.”
Water atomisation is not novel. In fact, water atomisers come in a familiar form - humidifiers and diffusers. It is the application of this technology to remove particulate matter and air pollutants that is new.
The main difference between Airtomo and other water atomisers lies in the droplet size, which can be determined by the product’s vibration frequency. Most products operate in the MHz range while Airtomo operates within a specific, low kHz range.
Chiam also plans to make Airtomo modules that can be placed on the walls in underground train stations to improve air quality. A small device would detect movement from passing commuters using a passive infrared sensor. After receiving this information via WiFi, it would then release water vapour into the air.