Rice Students Invent New Air Filter For Buses

The "FluProof" ultraviolet lamp kills pathogens as they pass through a bus's air duct. Rice engineering student Joey Spinella says the team wanted the lamp to be visible to passengers. "So they can see that and they can have the peace of mind in knowing that this bus is clean," he said. "But another practical reason we have that is it's an indicator, you can see if the lamp is working correctly."

Some Rice University engineering students have developed a technique to sterilize the air on a bus. The invention has a lot of public health potential, and Metro is watching closely.

“So here in the back of the bus we see this bright blue glow coming out of a plastic window on the top of the bus.”

Joey Spinella, who will graduate this week, is showing me his team’s invention. It’s called “FluProof” and consists of a glowing ultraviolet lamp that bus riders can watch through a plastic window.

The lamp is smack in the middle of the bus’s air duct, so as the air passes through the UV light instantly zaps dead any bacteria or viruses.

“This could actually be something that could revolutionize air sterilization for any transit vehicle, especially in the developing world where many other people have upper respiratory diseases like tuberculosis.”

Tuberculosis is also a problem here – the CDC reports Houston had the second most reported cases in the U.S., after New York City. Although it’s never been proven that public buses transmit TB, a number of studies indicate that it does sometimes happen.

Marsha Feske is an epidemiologist who studied TB and Houston bus routes while doing research at Methodist.

“Tuberculosis, once it’s respirated, it’s negligible to gravitational forces and so it remains airborne for up to nice hours. And the problem with that is someone can get on a bus and cough and actually respirate it get it into the air to be airborne, and then it continues to float around and potentially infect whomever else is on the bus for the rest of the day. So you don’t actually have to be riding public transportation with the person who has TB, you just have to ride the bus that someone who was coughing and had TB rode.”

Buses present a special challenge when it comes to filtration. A bus’s electrical system runs on DC voltage, which means there isn’t enough power for the HEPA air filters used in buildings and on airplanes. That’s one reason METRO is interested in the FluProof lamp.

Andrew Skabowski is a senior Vice President at Metro and arranged for the students to install and test the lamps on a METRO bus:

“I think there’s a lot more to do, it’s not market ready yet, but I think they’ve done a  wonderful job. They were able to deliver a system below what my cost expectations were and they were able to do some testing to show that indeed it does reduce some bacteria within the bus.”

Spinella and four other students tested the system and found it killed more than 99 percent of the bacteria circulating through a normal bus.

They claim it can be manufactured for less than $500 per unit.

They’re in the process of drafting a business plan.

From the KUHF Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

 

 

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...