'Biowall' Project Targeting Cleaner Homes, Businesses

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(photo courtesy of the Purdue Research Foundation/Hope Sale) (photo courtesy of the Purdue Research Foundation/Hope Sale)

Researchers at Purdue University are turning to plants as a way to clean the air in homes and businesses. The university says the research team has created the Biowall, an eco-friendly air filtration system for residential buildings that uses plants to absorb volatile organic compounds from the passing air and remove them from circulation. The team is being led by Bill Hutzel, a professor of mechanical engineering technology at the Purdue Polytechnic Institute.

Purdue says the Biowall uses plans grown in a loosely-packed growth media, which allows air to pass through. The system can be embedded into the wall of a home and is integrated into the return duct of an HVAC unit, allowing the biowall to affect the air quality of the entire home.

Hutzel says the opportunity to create the Biowall came from the construction of more air-tight buildings.

(Video courtesy of Purdue University)

"An air-tight home can be much more efficient but a side effect of making that home more efficient is that you have an opportunity to have an indoor air quality problem. If you're not exchanging air with the outside environment, harmful toxins can build up," said Hutzel. "Plants have the ability to metabolize airborne contaminants and it's more than just photosynthesis. We all know that plants can take in carbon dioxide and light and turn that into oxygen but there's a lesser-exploited phenomenon where the root zone of the plants hosts a microbial community. Those microbes have the ability to break down common airborne contaminants like toluene, formaldehyde and even benzine."

Hutzel says the microbes use those contaminants as a food source and, by breaking them down, improve the indoor air quality of the building. He says indoor air quality can tend to fly under the radar but is a big topic in buildings.

"It's widely understood that if you've got an employee that is not feeling their best, they're not working their best or a homeowner that has an uncomfortable home, if you can do anything to make a living space more accommodating, more healthy, more comfortable, you're going to have happier, healthier, more productive people."

The research team has installed the Biowall in a home near the West Lafayette Campus called the ReNEWW house, which was established in 2014 by Whirlpool Corp. (NYSE: WHR) and the university to transform the home into a research laboratory and sustainable living showcase. The team uses the house to monitor the performance of the biofilter, the health of the plants and the comfort of residents.

Hutzel and his team are working with the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization to patent the technology. He says they are now more focused on reducing the cost, improving the reliability and working more closely with home builders to find out what is needed to install the biowall into new homes.

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