Top Story, SYN, Devices & Diagnostics

Device to reduce spread of airborne viruses on planes invented by 17 year old

Commercial airplanes have pretty efficient air filtration systems, but could they be improved with the help of a teenager?

Raymond Wang, 17, won the top prize at this years Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh in May. The device that won the teen $75,000 is designed to reduce the transmission of airborne viruses on airplanes.

Wang, a junior at St. Georges School in Vancouver, was motivated by the Ebola outbreak and knowledge of the spread of H1N1 and SARS on planes, and he predicts the device can “improve the availability of fresh air in the cabin by 190 percent and reduce the concentration of airborne germs by 55 times.”

Currently, jetliners have air filters (called HEPA) that remove more than 99.97 of particles in the air, including bacteria and viruses. The only catch is, the air needs to make it to the filter before infecting anyone in order for that to be useful. This can be challenging if a person sneezes right next to you.

To examine how particles currently move around a plane, Wang created 32 simulations to track the movement of pathogens swirling around a Boeing 737 cabin, as well as a model of the cabin to confirm his simulations were correct. His solution is a device that creates “personalized breathing zones” for each passenger, as NPR reported.

Dr. Mark Gendreau, aviation medicine specialist at Lahey Medical Center in Peabody, Mass, told NPR that this device could maybe help a little bit, but there are many other factors involved.

“When you think about what needs to take place for someone to come down with an infectious illness, it blows your mind away — all the things that have to come into place,” Gendreau says, “One of the big things is luck: Are you in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

He pointed out that most infectious diseases are more often spread through touching surfaces, not particles in the air. So for those who are traveling, the most important thing you can do to protect yourself is carrying hand sanitizer and using it often.

But perhaps a version of Wang’s device could end up changing the current filtration system as well.

Here’s Wang demonstrating his design: