The global spread of viruses such as swine flu could be slowed by new air-sanitation technology on aircraft, claimed its UK developers.
The AirManager technology from Cheshire-based Quest International UK has completed trials with five European airlines. The units are now being prepared for installation across one European airline's entire fleet of Avro RJ aircraft.
AirManager, which is being distributed internationally by BAE Systems, works using a patented non-thermal plasma technique known as CCFT (Close-Coupled Field Technology).
Inventor David Hallam, director of Quest International, explained a high-voltage coil in a dielectric arrangement generates the contained electrical field. This field destabilises compounds and materials in the air passing through it.
A combination of high-voltage forces and oxidative stress within the field attacks inorganic and organic compounds at the molecular level and effectively strips them down to their component elements.
Any inert particulate materials are then passed through a 3M-manufactured High Air Flow (HAF) filter, which has an electrostatic surface area designed to attract, capture and retain particles down to 0.1 micron in size. The air is cycled 30 times before it is released into the cabin area.
Hallam said AirManager can remove up to 99.999 per cent of all pathogens in a single pass and an even greater amount of airborne viruses can be destroyed in the same amount of time. A unit is also claimed to be able to eliminate volatile organic compounds and offensive cabin smells from the air.
Hallam added that current cabin air-filtration systems such as HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Arrest) and ULPA (Ultra-Efficiency Particulate Arrest) cannot achieve these results and the technology is limited in the amount it can improve.
He said: 'The passive process for filtration has been developed for a long time but we have now got to an impasse. We have got to a point where we need an active treatment system, not passive, to deal with some of the problems.'
Hallam added when he began working on his non-thermal plasma technique in the late 1990s, many of his colleagues in the engineering world were incredulous because he was working with plasma generated with very low power at non-extreme temperatures.
He said: 'With plasma we are always thinking hot or cold. I started to look at the middle and wondered what would be the effect if we generated very low power. My colleagues came back and said: "If you are not ionising you are doing nothing."'
However, Hallam was able to prove he could achieve results with non-thermal plasma that generates only 3.6W — not even enough to light a light bulb.
He said: 'It is simply because we are generating a level of emission within the system, which I call "electron avalanches".'
These avalanches, he added, break down long chain molecules in a manner similar to that of a mass spectrometer.
Hallam originally developed the AirManager technology for nursing homes to reduce natural odours. Over time, Hallam said, nursing home staff realised the spread of infections decreased dramatically after the introduction of the units. It was enough of an indication, he added, to begin a programme to investigate the microbiological effects of the technology.
Since then, the company has sold 5,000 units to hospitals and other healthcare facilities for the control of airborne contaminants. The technology has also found applications in other areas, such as the remediation of buildings and properties after fires or floods.
The company approached BAE Systems four years ago to introduce the technology into the aerospace industry. The two companies have worked since then on trials with five European airlines on eight aircraft.
Sean McGovern, operations director of BAE Systems' regional aircraft business, said the AirManager has now been tested through the full European Aviation Safety Agency verification and certification programme and it has been cleared for application on BAe 146 and Avro RJ regional jetliners.
McGovern added a unit is now on trial on a Boeing 757 and it is expected to achieve certification this month.
He said: 'Depending on the airline interest and orders, it is likely the next systems will be developed for the Boeing 737 and Airbus 320.'
McGovern explained the installation of an AirManager is largely the same for each aircraft. The unit is designed to hook up to the valves of the bleed air unit in an aircraft. In a civil aircraft, bleed air is used to provide pressure for the cabin by supplying air to the Environmental Control System (ECS). The air is 'bled' from a compressor stage of each turbine engine.
The number of ducts leading from the bleed air unit depends on the size of the aircraft. A Boeing 737, for example, would require five AirManager units for each of its five bleed air unit ducts, while an Avro RJ would require only two units for its two ducts.
Hallam said with most filtration systems in aircraft, ECS systems must work overtime to keep air swiftly flowing and pressure up. He explained the electrostatic surface of the AirManager's HAF filter flows 60 times more air than conventional HEPA or ULPA filters.
McGovern added all of this translates to less energy used on board. 'We estimate a little over a one per cent fuel-burn reduction. For an RJ that could mean $100,000 [£60,460] per aircraft per year.'
Each AirManager unit retails at £10,000, McGovern said, so most airlines would see payback from fuel savings within a year.
The airline business has been hit hard in 2009, according to the latest figures from the International Air Transport Association. The group estimates the industry lost more than $6bn in the first half of the year mostly because of the recession and rise in fuel costs.
While concerns about swine flu are likely to have played a minor role in the decrease in air travel, the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) believes air passengers still want to know airlines are doing their best to control the problem.
Sean Tipton, spokesman for ABTA, said airlines would be likely to gain more confidence from passengers by installing systems to improve cabin air quality.
He added: 'It is important to show you are doing everything in your power to stop transmission on board. Swine flu is one pandemic; there will be others, and with international travel these things spread a lot faster than they would have historically. So anything that can cut down on that has got to be a good thing.'