Clever homemakers have known for generations that living plants inside the home clean the air, making it easier for occupants to breathe. Now, Spark Award winner Anna Dyson takes the same basic principle to build a “living wall” of plants whose rhizospheres (the area around the roots) are 200 times more powerful at removing pollutants from indoor air than are plant leaves.

Indoor air pollution is of rising concern as more and more buildings and homes become increasingly airtight to conserve energy. Unfortunately, most heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems are not equipped to take up the slack, and in many cases actually contribute to indoor air pollution. This is often the result of HVAC drain pans developing mold after being exposed to more or less constant levels of moisture for months at a time. Even where systems are adequately sized, they have little or no capacity to remove volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, from indoor air. These VOCs—ranging from wood glues and wall paint to the chemicals used in furniture fabrics and carpeting—can make people very ill.

AMP prototype
image via Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE)

Dyson’s award-winning offering, which relies on the principles of active modular phytoremediation (AMP), is a biomechanical hybrid system that not only helps purify indoor air but can reduce the need for the extra air-conditioning that results from homeowners and building owners letting in “fresh” (but hot and polluted) air from outside.

The AMP system does this by growing plants hydroponically inside can-type apertures that together make up the size-adjustable living wall module. Because they are hydroponically grown—using nutrient-rich drip irrigation but not soil—the rhizomes of these plants are able to purify the air that circulates inside the system, reducing VOC levels in typical offices by 80 percent, and providing 60 percent of the “fresh air” needed according to standards set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

According to the Spark Awards, a prototype of the AMP system is being tested at Rensselaer’s Aerosols Research Lab, with the research supported by many entities, including the New York State Energy Research Development Authority and the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation.

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