Air-Quality-Sensor Applications September 2016
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A World Health Organization study attributed 3.7 million deaths worldwide during 2012 to outdoor air pollution. No universal sensor detects all important air-quality problems, or even most of the problems. Monitoring stations measure concentrations of specific hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), sulphur compounds, oxygen, ozone, nitrogen oxides, particulates of various sizes, and other indicators of air quality. For each measurand, a sensor that can monitor a community or assess regulatory compliance can cost $5,000 or more. Air-quality-monitoring researchers envision those costs falling dramatically in coming years.
Poor indoor air quality in homes, workplaces, and public buildings poses additional dangers. Studies of US residents blame indoor pollutants for hundreds of thousands of cases of asthma and tens of thousands of cases of cardiac death in elderly people. A researcher told the New York Times that relative to better-known risks, indoor air pollution is more dangerous than people realize: "It's well over violence." People who manage allergies, specific air-quality problems, or both in their homes may be motivated to acquire new consumer and prosumer products for air-quality monitoring. A number of the products sell at price points from some $80 to $280 and contain various combinations of sensors that detect particulates, VOCs, CO2, and humidity (which plays a role in indoor air quality because excess moisture promotes mold growth).
Developers will seek to fulfill unmet needs for accurate, miniature carbon-monoxide, ozone, and radon sensors. Public health concerns will motivate efforts to reduce costs of instrumentation-quality sensors that measure pollutants.
Cost reductions and technology developments also promise to enable deployment of next-generation air-quality-monitoring infrastructure that supplements instrumentation-quality sensors with cheap sensors; increases the geographic density of sensing sites; and detects specific pollutants that pose known health risks but are presently unmeasured. Sensors that provide the public with air-quality information are likely to appear on utility poles, in specially equipped vehicles, and in personal and portable devices for volunteers.
Many commercial buildings now make use of mid-priced (on the order of $500) CO2, VOC, and humidity sensors to control fresh air, dehumidification, and other systems. Cost-reduced versions of such sensors and controls could play roles in preserving indoor air quality while satisfying increasingly stringent standards for reduced air leakage in new, energy-efficient homes. Cars are another potential target: A particle sensor could prompt users to replace cabin air filters when required, rather than by a maintenance schedule.
New technologies and sensor networks will expose hidden or unnoticed sources of indoor and outdoor pollutants, causing people to seek remedies for bad air. Tenants may demand remedies from landlords; communities may demand remedies from nearby industrial plants; and citizens may demand remedies from governments. Stakeholders will discover that the sensors are economical but the remedies can be costly and complex.
Some start-ups and sensor makers hope that air-quality monitoring will become mainstream, with sensors in mass-market devices such as Wi-Fi security cameras and proposed wearable devices. Air-quality monitors are probably unlikely to see Fitbit-like sales and popularity for the foreseeable future. But this could change if, for example, affluent users in some highly polluted cities begin to see air-quality monitoring as helpful or even necessary.