Ionic Air Purifier Technologies - Defender or Destroyer?
Ionic air purifiers hold the promise of clean air, purified of all known harmful contaminants that threaten our health. Naked eyes cannot see these harmful contaminants. Invisible ions battling invisible contaminants appears to make perfect sense. I find the intuitive logic appealing. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution as google throws up an avalanche of controversy within seconds. Even though I am tempted to quickly get an ionic air purifier to clean the air I breathe, it is clear that more time and effort is needed. Effectiveness is important but safety is paramount in the criteria for selecting an ionic air purifier.
The recent China melamine saga that killed infants also serves as a reminder to us that in buying into any technology or any product, all claims by manufacturers and distributors must be screened to the fullest extent that our resources permit. Where the reactive agent is invisible, it becomes even more critical to focus on it. Investigating ionic air purifier technologies falls within this ambit as the reactive agents are invisible ions.
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In this article, I am laying out the roadmap as I look into the existing ionic air purifier technologies in the global marketplace. My back-to-basics approach is an attempt, as a layperson, to understand the science behind the technology. The current key trend appears to be the creation of a potent invisible defence shield against airborne molecular contaminants that threaten our well-being. The predominant airborne threat being monitored by scientists the world over is the avian flu virus.
Types of Ionic Air Purifier Technologies
Broadly speaking, air purification technologies can be deployed in either passive or active modes. Under passive technology modes, reactive agents are contained in the air purifier whilst impure air is drawn in for cleansing before being pushed back to the environment. Conversely, in active mode, reactive agents are pumped into the impure air environment. It is not unusual to find combinations of both passive and active modes in many ionic air puriifers.
In the global market today, ionic air purifier technologies include the following categories:
(A) Ion generator - positive and negative ions
(B) Ion generator - negative ions only
(C) Photocatalytic Oxidation (POC)
(D) Electrostatic filter
Ion Generator - Positive and Negative Ions
This combination of positive and negative ions appears to show the most promise for the future of ionic air purifier technology. They have been named as plasmacluster ions by Sharp Corporation, the Japanese corporate powerhouse that invented them.
Plasmaclusters of positive and negative ions encircle and latch onto harmful bacteria and viruses in a deadly grip. When clumping occurs, hydroxyl is produced. Commonly known as nature's detergent, hydroxyl is a powerful reactive species that destroys airborne particulates by removing hydrogen molecules from their organic structures. Harmless by-products, mainly water, are generated by this chemical reaction.
This technology uses a differential ion generator, comprising a positive and a negative ion generator which can be powered in alternate cycles to control the type of ions generated.
Advocates of the positive and negative ions combination claim that a balance of both these ion types is to be found in places like waterfalls and pristine forests, i.e. this is the real state of the natural environment. Proponents of negative ions believe that negative ions dominate the environment in these natural habitats and even insist that positive ions are harmful. Thus far, I have not found any independent scientific studies to support the opposing claims of the two technologies.
Ion Generator - Negative Ions
The traditional ionic air purifier produces only negative ions. Currently, this technology dominates market share but it is under serious threat from Sharp's plasmacluster positive and negative ions technology.
It is claimed that nearly all harmful airborne particulates like dust, smoke and bacteria etc have a positive charge. Negatively charged ions are naturally attracted to these particulates until they sink to the ground by sheer weight. These impurities are simply removed by vacuuming. Detractors of negative ion technology believe that the "overweight" particulates on the ground are not destroyed and that the mere act of walking on them re-contaminates the air.
Apparently, there are a number of ways to produce negative ions. This is important because different methods produce different by-products, some of which may be harmful. These methods include:
(1) Water method - this employs what is known as the waterfall or Lenard Effect. Water droplets are splashed onto a metal plate where a small electric charge is applied. Large numbers of negative ions are produced as water droplets are split. It is claimed that no harmful by-products are produced by the water method.
(2) Electron radiation method - this is based on a single negative discharge electrode needle. Millions of negatively-charged electrons are produced when a high voltage pulse is applied to the electrode. This method does not result in ozone being generated. This is attributed to a "smaller" energy pulse being applied.
(3) Corona discharge method - this is based on a dual electrode model, a sharp metal electrode and a flat electrode. High voltage is applied between the electrodes. This creates a massive movement of electrons between the electrodes and ionises the air in between them. An inherent flaw of this method is the production of harmful by-products like ozone and nitride oxide.
Photocatalytic Oxidation (POC)
This technology is commonly applied in a passive mode. It is also based on the powerful reactive agent hydroxyl which purifies impure air that is pulled through the air purifier.
Germicidal ultraviolet (UV) light is commonly shone on a catalyst (usually titanium oxide) to produce hydroxyl, oxygen and peroxide, all of which are potent oxidising agents that are very effective at destroying the organic structure of micro-organisms and gaseous volatile organic compounds.
Complete and comprehensive action is the pillar of POC technology. Proponents of this technology claim that POC inactivates ALL categories of indoor pollution, including:
(1) airborne particulates i.e. dust, pet dander, plant pollen, sea salts, tobacco smoke, industrial and car pollution, etc
(2) bioaerosols i.e. infectious biological compounds (e.g. pathogenic bacteria and viruses) or non-contagious and non-infectious (e.g. non-pathogenic bacteria, molds, cell debris)
(3) volatile organic compounds (VOCs) i.e. gaseous odours and chemicals - toluene, chloroform, hexane, ethanol, formaldehyde, ethylene etc, all common emissions from everyday products of our modern home.
POC technology has been criticised for relying on hydroxyl which are believed to attack with equal tenacity the organic structures that make up molecular contaminants and our lung tissue, nose membranes and eye cornea.
This technology appears to have originated in heavy industries which produced abundant pollutants. Typically, an electrostatic filter is made of a porous dielectric material that is positioned between two electrodes. Dielectric materials do not conduct electricity while metallic electrodes are excellent conductors that transmit and receive electricity.
As impure air is drawn into the electrostatic purifier, it passes through the dielectric material which acts as a sieve. The electrostatic field created between the electrodes causes airborne particulates i.e.smoke contaminants, dust, etc, to adhere to the dielectric surface. Out of the other end of the purifier, cleaned air is recirculated.
Frequently, an ion source is planted just before the electrostatic filter to electrically charge the airborne particulates. These impurities, so charged, stick more effectively to the dielectric material.
Critics of this technology point to the production of harmful ozone in the ionisation process.
Combo Ionic Air Purifiers
To cater to the various adherents and critics of the diverse technologies, combos incorporate all or some of the above types of technologies. Combos may include:
(1) adsorptive materials such as activated carbon or oxygenated charcoal (known for it's extremely porous large surface area) are added to POC technology to enhance the removal of VOCs;
(2) oxidizing catalysts like titanium oxide are coated on various components of all types of air purifiers to enhance VOC elimination;
(3) reducing catalysts such as manganese dioxide are coated near the exit outlets of many air purifiers to reduce reactive species like ozone and nitric oxide which may be harmful;
(4) generating ions by differing methods such as using microwave, UV light, radio frequency waves, and direct current;
(5) tweaking the specifications of any ionic air purifier technology so as to attain the well-known HEPA status without actually using HEPA filters.
Obviously, the process of selecting the most efficient and effective ionic air purifier involves analysing a deluge of information. And I have not even touched on the safety aspects of each technology. I have also not examined in greater depth the claims of each technology. It is natural to want to quickly want something that promises to improve the air quality in your homes, offices, factories, schools etc. But I urge you to do your homework and don't forget to visit me for updates as I continue my search for the ideal ionic air purifier.
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