14 December 2015

First Sunday of Advent: Christmas Chemistry in a box

Air pollution

Candles are lit on the Christmas tree, the smell of turkey from the oven fills the room, and smoke is rising heavily from the chimney. All of these things help bring the Christmas spirit to life, but unfortunately, they also pollute the air. It turns out that air pollution is worse than smoking and diabetes together. Our advent researcher of the day, Matthew S. Johnson from the Department of Chemistry, has found a solution to this problem. He has invented a box which cleans pollution from the air and has saved several companies from closing down. Thus, the demand for his invention is increasing in cities and companies where air pollution is one of the greatest threats to public health.

It was no surprise that Matthew S. Johnson became a researcher. Already as a child, he began building robots and other inventions in his home office – the basement:

"My friends and I used to have 'inventor's club' meetings in the basement of our house, we would build robots and computers and things we read about in science fiction books. An older sister was studying chemistry at the university, and an older brother was studying math, and I looked up to them."

According to Matthew S. Johnson, his profession is one of the most rewarding as you are surrounded by people who work with important problems every day:

"I can't imagine anything more interesting than being a researcher."

It has been 20 years since Matthew S. Johnson made his first discovery on how to clean the air. The scenery however is different now. His office is no longer in the basement, but at The Department of Chemistry. His invention turned out to be life-saving, and has laid the ground for his whole career.

Air pollution – worse than smoking

The air-cleaning invention comes in a package, and is what he himself calls: 'Atmospheric Chemistry in a Box'. According to Matthew S. Johnson, air pollution is not only unhealthy – it is actually life-threatening. Take a sleigh ride in the snow, and the air you are breathing in may not be as fresh as you imagine:

"Air pollution kills more people annually than road traffic, smoking and diabetes combined." he tells us.

Besides saving lives and preventing diseases which are directly linked to air pollution, the box has also been used to prevent companies from closing down in both Denmark and Germany. These companies were on the brink of being shut down due to concerns of air pollution. However, the box turned out to be the solution to their problem:

"There were factories in Aarhus and Jelling that were going to be closed due to concerns about odor and air pollution. Our system has saved these companies by cleaning air."

Nature fast forward

How is it possible that a box can clean the air? According to Matthew S. Johnson, the Earth’s atmosphere has a natural way of dealing and getting rid of pollution. By studying the natural processes that the air encompasses, Matthew S. Johnson has found a way of using these chemical processes in a more controlled matter, that is, he accelerates Nature’s chemical processes by multiplying them with a thousand:

"The Earth's atmosphere removes pollution using rain and sunlight and chemical reactions. This invention uses those same processes for cleaning up air pollution," he explains.

During his research, he has studied the chemistry behind pollution and how to use this knowledge for pollution control. With the help of basic science from thermodynamics, reaction kinetics and spectroscopy, he is spending every day trying to find a solution for how to trap and destroy pollution once and for all. The box contains processes which cleans the air when it is already polluted, thus, it functions as a copy of Nature’s own chemical defense system. Matthew S. Johnson is determined to clean the air from pollution once and for all.

Industry shows interest

The box’s success only seems to be the beginning. Industry has indeed gotten a taste for Matthew S. Johnson’s invention, and he is cooperating with many sectors in order to put down pollution and enhance pollution control:

"We are working together with a lot of different sectors including biogas, the German metal industry and farming."

This has prompted him to start-up two companies which use his box to remedy air pollution:

"I helped start a company, Infuser, that puts these boxes on to factories and buildings, and a second company, Airlabs, that is working on reducing exposure to air pollution in cities."

Hopefully, in the future, we can skate on the ice, play in the snow, and take a sleigh-ride with our loved ones, not worrying about whether the air we breathe in is clean or not.