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Returning to work: Can air sensors one day detect COVID-19?

As businesses start to explore how to safely return employees to workplace environments, air ventilation systems and their potential role in airborne virus spread are starting to come into question. Many are beginning to wonder if air sensor technology can help with virus detection. While air sensors in ventilation systems currently cannot detect COVID-19, it is possible that one day this technology may be augmented to help us understand and monitor diseases and illnesses.

Members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) have provided their expert perspectives on the possibility of such technology assisting in the fight against this virus, and how workplaces may be affected by COVID-19.

New buildings and renovations will be affected.

“It is likely that sensors for the specific purpose of evaluating ventilation conditions of an environment should be developed,” says Artur Ziviani, IEEE Senior Member. “Nevertheless, this should also impact the architecture of new buildings or the renovation of old buildings, in particular, if new regulations start appearing to ensure a certain level of ventilation at different places.”

Bioaerosols are complex.

“Although experts don’t seem to agree on whether COVID-19 is airborne or not (except for very specific circumstances, such as when intubating an infected patient), the issue is still relevant, not only for this one, but also for inevitable future epidemics,” says Raul Colcher, IEEE Life Senior Member. “It would fall into the more general question of detecting ‘bioaerosols’. There are devices capable of capturing the particles of mucus or saliva coming out of someone’s mouth. However, the question of establishing in real-time whether they contain viruses, let alone detecting the presence of a specific virus, is much more complex. In addition, there are other unknowns: for example, what is the minimum dose of infection (the amount of particles that would be necessary to breathe and, consequently, the exposure time so that there is a significant probability of infection), and how far can droplets travel? Such parameters may vary widely for different viruses, probably making it difficult to precisely characterize what ‘good ventilation’ would mean in general.”

It’s going to take more technology than air sensors.

“Sensors can pick up different signals,,” says André Leon Gradvohl, IEEE Senior Member. “In addition to temperature, pressure and humidity, they can also obtain concentrations of gases and particulate materials, among others. The software, which controls the sensors that capture these signals, can assess conditions to interfere with the environment the sensors are in. In this way, the sensors can provide information to software that controls other devices to redirect air flows and thus decrease the concentration of gases or particulate matter. The analysis of this data obtained in real-time by the sensors and the almost immediate action of the actuators – software-controlled – requires reasonable processing power. Not only to process data quickly, but also to evaluate the results of decision making.”

Filters might help.

“The best action in this domain seems to be the use of filters,” says Anderson Maciel, IEEE member. “Several ultraviolet light or ozone-based filters that kill viruses and bacteria have existed for years. The technology to detect viruses in the air, as far as I know, does not exist. It also seems that there is no consensus on how long a virus can remain active and infectious in the air.”

Sensors help detect air pollution.

“Sensors can help us identify air pollution, which is very difficult for the human senses to detect,” says Ramalatha Marimuthu, IEEE Senior Member. “There are numerous sensors for measuring air quality, and identifying the contaminants is the next step. Sensors in a room can record the quality of the air as well as the quantity of movement of air to detect whether proper ventilation is available. It is also possible to detect room temperature, humidity and other parameters, which can help in identifying the personal comfort of the people in the room.”

Detection will be needed for recycled air.

“Expect to see sensors installed by air vents in buildings to measure air flow and provide feedback on the need to increase or decrease flow,” says Paul Kostek, IEEE Senior Member. “Closed loop systems that recycle air will also need sensors to monitor the air quality and ensure pollutants or airborne viruses are not spreading.”

Sensors keep us on top of air maintenance.

“Air flow sensors can helpt,” says Tom Coughlin, IEEE Fellow. “Also sensors that can detect air quality in the ventilation system can help. Sensors may also be used to determine that dangerous conditions exist, or that may encourage fungal or bacterial growth. Sensors can also determine the effectiveness of air filters and alert maintenance folks when these need changing.”

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by D Baker .

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