Collaboration helps UW-Madison Chemists quickly evaluate technologies to clean the air

By Tatum Lyles Flick
Communications Specialist

Person in red shirt on step ladder reading air quality meter
Masters student Stephanie Richards reads air quality measurements taken from a custom test duct and York furnace, provided by collaborators at Johnson Controls. | Photo by Delaney Kilgour

Individuals and businesses are scrambling to find new ways to protect themselves from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. With this interest, the effectiveness of new technologies that promise to improve indoor air quality has taken center stage.

University of Wisconsin–Madison chemists have accepted the challenge of evaluating those technologies and the work is moving quickly, thanks to the lab’s partnership with HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) specialists at Johnson Controls.

“We need strategies for in-room mediation efforts, deployable around campus or in other indoor environments, that span from box fans with filters to expensive air purification devices,” explained Tim Bertram, professor of chemistry at UW–Madison, whose group is leading the project with their knowledge of atmospheric and aerosol chemistry.

The partnership brings together each team’s expertise and resources from Johnson Controls, which makes it possible for the research team to quickly acquire the equipment it needs for experiments and share their knowledge about how the equipment would work in buildings.

“We know buildings, engineering and HVAC really well,” said Kirk H. Drees, director of research and modeling at Johnson Controls. “We rely on the chemistry department’s expertise for how aerosols distribute throughout indoor spaces.  Together, we are able to come up with tangible and realistic solutions for minimizing the spread of infectious agents.”

The goal is to set up HVAC systems in a way that makes infectious agents, like the virus that causes COVID-19, less likely to spread. Certain variables in the HVAC system can be manipulated for that purpose, such as increasing the intake of outdoor air, using filtration or disinfecting the air with ultraviolet light.

The partnership has had a noticeable impact on the Bertram group’s ability to quickly access the technology they need to perform experiments.

“Working with our industry partners offers a shift toward applicability,” said assistant scientist Joseph Gord, adding that the groups hold weekly brainstorming meetings.

The Bertram group is testing a variety of in-room filtration units advertised to reduce the number of viral particles. With Johnson Controls’ help, they were able to hone their approach, quickly determining what kind of furnace and duct systems would work best and they quickly received the needed technology from the company.

“This is an impactful collaboration of leveraging the science expertise and instrumentation that UW researchers have to develop new technologies and further air quality control in buildings,” said Jon Douglas, director of advanced platform development. “We at Johnson Controls are able to learn about aerosol science and Dr. Bertram and his students are learning about the practical application of that science in buildings and business.”

Though many industry/academic collaborations result in research available only to the funding company, the team at Johnson Controls has asked the Bertram group to publish their findings for other researchers and the public.