How Microbes Around Plants Translate Into Energy Savings

Some air purifying technology originally developed by NASA could eventually purify the air in buildings so much that it would drastically reduce the need to replace air, which in turn would result in big energy savings.

Martin Mittelmark, CEO of Phytofilter Technologies, explained that NASA was researching how plants purify air because of its interest in long-term habitat in outer space. The scientists found that carbon-eating microbes around a plant’s root system digest impurities in air. If they grew plants in porous soil and put an induction fan below the filter, they could get 100 times more polluted air down to the microbes.

By leveraging the microbes around the plant, “they (NASA) found these plant purifiers were taking just about every contaminant out of the air,” said Mittelmark. The soil around the plant acts as a filter bed through which indoor air passes and pollutants are trapped, and the filter never needs replacing.

Eventually, the technology was studied at the Center for Excellence at Syracuse University, where it was determined that purifying the air in a building, rather than just filtering it, can cut down on the amount of ventilation required under ASHRAE 61. And less air replacement means less heating or cooling of air.

Mittelmark said plant air purifiers and filters tested in the engineering wing on the Syracuse campus resulted in energy savings between 10 to 26 percent. At about $1 per square foot of habitable area, the payback on Phytofilter from energy savings is about 6-10 years, said Mittelmark.

Although the energy savings is good, the savings on healthcare costs is even better. “If you look where the big bucks are, it’s health insurance or number of days for sick leave,” said Mittelmark. Phytofilter Technologies plans to initially market the product to businesses as a way to supply clean air and cut down on health insurance costs.

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