International Science Fair Winner Helps Reduce Germ-Transmission on Airplanes

By Liana Loewus — May 19, 2015 1 min read
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Can a sneeze from the seat behind you on an airplane flight bring all your health fears to the fore?

Seventeen-year-old Raymond Wang of Canada won $75,000 in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair last week for inventing an air inlet system that reduces disease transmission in airplane cabins. Wang was chosen as the 1st place winner out of about 1,700 young scientists from around the world.

Wang told the Washington Post he began thinking about the spread of contagious diseases during the Ebola outbreak in Africa. While Ebola does not spread through the air, plenty of other viruses do, including SARS and H1N1.

“With the traditional [airplane] cabin, what’s happening is you’ve got two large, turbulent swirls happening. You’re spreading disease across the rows and longitudinally,” said Wang.

He designed fin-shaped devices to redirect airflow within the cabin of an airplane and create “virtual walls of air around each passenger,” explains the Post. “Each person gets what Wang calls a ‘personalized ventilation zone’ where sneezes are vanquished, pushed out of the cabin before they can spread in a turbulent burst.”

That is, airflow goes from this (Wang did this simulation using a model of a Boeing 737 cabin):

To this:

The availability of fresh air goes up by 190 percent. And the concentration of airborne pathogens is reduced by about 55 times. Wang also told the Post the devices could be installed overnight and for about $1,000 per plane.

The competition, administered by the Society for Science & the Public since 1950, awarded two other students $50,000 grants—one for creating an inexpensive, disposable HIV-testing device and one for improving the enclosure for an undersea oil well.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.