Breathe Easy Everybody

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Photo Credit: Jonathan Rausseo

As I sit in my office surrounded by literally over 100 plants I can't help but wonder how I got here. Co-workers pass by and constantly ask if they can have one, but I deny them any access to the precious plants. "No, these plants are for science!" I exclaim.

Let's back up. A couple of months ago I got an e-mail from Dr Scott Findlay about EVS 3101. Every year Scott teaches the course and every year he makes sure to contact the science community and ask them if we have an interesting project for his students. Every year I submit a couple of ideas and every year I never get any takers, but this year I only submitted one. I can't quite explain why but it seemed like this was the big one... the experiment that would help make a difference.

And so, this year, unlike any other year, my project was accepted. A group of three students will study the impact of indoor plants on the air quality of a classroom. I guess I should explain why I wanted to do this. As it turns out every year Faizal Sudoollah (our Energy Manager) conducts air quality surveys of all the classrooms on campus. Every class passes the test of acceptable levels of CO2, but there are always the ones that don't do as well as the others.

The thought of this always bugged me. I mean I know that not every classroom can be a monument of engineering excellence but surely we can try to do something to make the worst performing classrooms a little better. And then one day I wander across a Tedtalk by Kamal Meattle about how to grow your own fresh air. (Check out the video here) "That's it" I think to myself... "Why not just grow our own fresh air?"

The concept is simple enough, all we have to do is see if some plants can absorb enough CO2 to make the air in the classroom more comfortable. Why am I using the word comfortable? Usually when we talk about the amount of CO2 in a room we speak in terms of comfort. The amount of CO2 in a room can cause headaches, nausea, and even cause someone to lose consciousness. Therefore if the CO2 levels are too high than the room becomes uncomfortable.

Now before you start freaking out let me just say that the levels of CO2 that would cause you to have these types of reactions are really high, in fact they are almost impossible to imagine on campus. But the reason I mention this is because if we can reduce the amount of CO2 in the classrooms to about 1000 ppm (parts per million) then we can optimize student's ability to focus (and maybe do better in their course).

So that's it, this week we began our baseline testing and next week we will install the plants in our experimental classroom. If all goes well and the experiment works out the way it should, then it may be possible to make plants a standard part of every classroom. The benefit of this is that we could ventilate the room without having to use mechanical equipment. This would have the added benefit of saving energy and money.


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