Blue Skies, a Harvard Innovation Lab startup, has launched the first true outdoor pollution filter to keep you and your family safer (available for pre-order via Indiegogo). It is described by the company as the first and only thin filter capable of removing the three most common outdoor pollutants (particulate matter (PM), and chemical gases nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and sulfur dioxide (SO2)), whereas the best HEPA filters only effectively filter particulate pollutants. The Strollair filter from Blue Skies supposedly exceeds any other portable product at reducing exposure to traffic and powerplant pollution and represents the first of many upcoming filters that Blue Skies plans to develop that provide portable solutions for people to protect themselves from pollution.
Alice Ferng, Medgadget: What is your background and what got you interested in founding Blue Skies?
Dr. Jason Munster, Blue Skies: I grew up in Rockwood, Maine, a town of 296 people in the unorganized territories.
I went to Harvard for undergrad and studied Earth & Planetary Sciences, and had a focus in earth resources and the environment. I went and did finance work for a while, and decided that I want to do good in the world. So then I went and did a PhD in Environmental Engineering to try and come up with solutions to some of the world’s biggest environmental problems. Along the way, I picked up a Masters in Atmospheric Chemistry and Climatology.
The motivation behind my filter came about when I was in Beijing, China going for a run and had an asthma attack. After this exposure to air pollution, I went to look for air filters and realized that nothing exists. As an atmospheric chemist, I recognized that 3M masks only filter out particulate matter pollution, as opposed to chemical pollution. Obviously chemical pollution is a huge component of air pollution. Over the next 4 years I then set out to make the next filter that could filter out chemical air pollution. I started this endeavor back in 2009, though it wasn’t until 2015 when I finally figured out ways to potentially make this patent since that’s when I finally figured out how to make this filter and filed a patent. It took me a good 6 years to figure out how to do it.
Fast forward, trying to find different uses for this filter: The most obvious use is just to sell this technology to 3M or Samsung for their home filters and other filters. But I felt like this missed an opportunity to try and enlighten people to the massive problems of air pollution in developed cities. Most people do not understand that we have a serious pollution problem still in the United States and that over 200,000 people die a year from pollution. I was hoping to build a consumer brand as opposed to selling business-to-business instead in order to raise awareness of this problem, and to have people start to keep pushing for stringent enactment of the Clean Air Act.
Medgadget: Tell me more about pollution. What do people breathe in when they are outdoors?
Dr. Munster: There are different grades of pollution. The first and largest are allergens, which tend to be 5 microns and larger. 5 microns is roughly 1/20th the size of the average human hair. HEPA filters are excellent at filtering out particulates of this size and larger. Going down from there, we have water droplets that are 3 to 5 microns. Airborne viruses tend to ride in water droplets that are this size. This can be filtered out effectively with a standard 3M mask as well. Even smaller is a complex mix of particulate matter. This is stuff that is commonly associated with visible air pollution such as smog. This size range can be include a wide of range that not only includes diesel and coal fire power plants pollutants, but it can also be from weird things, such as car brakes that abrade a tiny bit of metal that then jumps onto dust that then floats around in the air. The same thing happens with construction, which can result in things like silica matter based pollution. Much of this is considered “ultrafine,” which means that it is too small for a HEPA filter to remove. Typically, standard HEPA filters are pretty good at stopping most particulate matter pollution.
I have a HEPA style filter included with my filter as well, but beyond this is where things start to get tricky. Chemical pollution, such as SO2 and NO2, are single molecules that cannot just be physically filtered the way you filter out other particulates with a HEPA filter. These chemical pollutants are produced by all cars (except electric cars), and any fossil fuel power plant also produces them. SO2, especially, is produced by diesel vehicles, as well as NO2. There is actually a lot of NO2 pollution in Europe where there are a lot more diesel vehicles than there are in the U.S. There are other common air pollutants. There are 6 air pollutants that the EPA controls, but particulate matter, SO2 and NO2 are the 3 most common found everywhere.
Medgadget: Tell me about your product Strollair.
Dr. Munster: I wanted to start with babies since people care a lot about babies. Strollair is a fancy package for the filter. The filter is the advanced technology. Everything in Strollair is just a way to use it for an infant. It’s actually a portable filter that can be used for other things. The primary design is for it to attach to baby’s strollers and car seats because these are the 2 places that babies are bombarded with traffic pollution all the time. Traffic pollution is a known cause of asthma — one of the strongest causes in some cases.
Medgadget: How much air space around the device is actually covered by the filter?
Dr. Munster: The device itself puts out around 100 litres of filtered air per minute, or about 25 gallons. It actually will only be effective in filtering in a recessed area or an enclosed space. A baby stroller with a sun canopy deployed is an example of a recessed area. The kids are fenced in on 5 sides, with only the forward part open. The effective range is therefore only around the infant. In a car, it could over several minutes or tens of minutes it could start to filter out all the air in the car since the car is enclosed, but the area around the infant in the car seat is filled with filtered air immediately.
Another use case for this product is also adults and adolescents. The device is actually USB powered can can be used on a desk for filtering out air in the immediate personal space, for example while they are studying.
Indoor pollution has a different mix than outdoor pollution. There is still NO2 and SO2 that is not filtered out by conventional charcoal filters. The Strollair filter does what charcoal filters do, but more efficiently.
Medgadget: What are your future plans for additional devices?
Dr. Munster: There will be bigger devices that will be capable of filtering out a whole car in a matter of minutes as opposed to tens of minutes. There will be a mouth-held respirator for bicyclists that will be on a strap around their neck that can be removed when not needed, such as when not around traffic. Exhaust in normal traffic is highly concentrated pollution.
I am going to make more advanced conventional respirators, similar to the 3M type respirators for anyone that wants to exercise outside in polluted environments. For example, runners do not breathe through their mouths and instead through their noses, so this would be a special kind of respirator. I would have to design the respirator to be able to cool more effectively than current ones. This could also be used by anyone who is traveling to polluted environments, such as most places in India or China.
Medgadget: Do you have plans to further modify or improve your filters?
Dr. Munster: There are lot of things we are going to try to do to improve the filters. We can tweak the surface chemistry of the filters and potentially add catalysts to the filter to make them filter more efficiently. The filters could be made thinner or even bump up the filter filtration efficacy. Hopefully we can tweak the filters some to target specific other types of pollutants. One thing you hear about a lot are volatile organic carbons (VOCs). Those are the things that smell funny, such as when you smell paint. Being able to filter out some of these common VOCs is also something we are working towards.
Indiegogo campaign: BlueSkies: The first true pollution filter…
Link: Blue Skies Company Blog…