When you breathe at work, you might be sucking in airborne pollution from your printer, formaldehyde from your desk, chemicals from carpet or paint, mold from a ventilation system, and particles from your coworker's cough. The air in your home isn't necessarily fresher, even if you happen to have an air purifier: Filters can't catch all pollution.
A new air purifier called Molekule takes a different approach. Instead of trying to catch pollutants in a physical filter, it claims to attack them chemically, breaking bacteria, viruses, mold, and airborne chemicals down into water and carbon dioxide.
The purifier is the result of two decades of research from chemical engineering professor Yogi Goswami, who typically works on solar energy technology—but was inspired to work on the problem of indoor air pollution because of his son's struggles with asthma and allergies, which often landed the family in the emergency room.
"We tried many, many different things, and finally he felt that what's out there isn't really solving the problem," says Dilip Goswami, his son and cofounder and CEO of the new startup. "He went into the lab and spent many years researching a technology that could actually break down pollution in the air at the molecular level."
The technology took inspiration from a solar photovoltaic cell, which converts sunlight into electricity. "We use that same principle of light shining on a surface, that we've coated with a special catalyst," Goswami says. "Instead of taking that energy out as electricity, we use that energy for a chemical reaction that happens on the surface of a filter that we're running air through."
A similar reaction happens in the Earth's upper atmosphere, where light reacts with water vapor to break down some pollution. "We've kind of bottled that up and put it in a device and made it many, many times more efficient, so that it can break down pollution indoors," he says.
It's also a similar process to the coating that some buildings use to break down smog (Yogi Goswami was the first to use the technique for air pollution, in the 1990s), but faster and more efficiently.
HEPA filters—technology first invented during the Manhattan Project to catch radioactive dust—can only catch larger particles of pollution and miss microscopic pollution. (The makers of Molekule say it can destroy pollutants 1,000 times smaller than a HEPA filter and, unlike a carbon filter, can fully eliminate VOCs.) In some cases, filters can even make air worse. When Jaya Rao, Dilip's sister and cofounder of the company, moved into a new house, she realized that the filter in the home's HVAC system was covered with mold growth.
"You just don't realize, because you think, I'm safe here," she says. "But the people that lived there before were breathing that stuff, and we were breathing it until we saw it."
In a hospital, the devices could help stop the spread of dangerous illnesses, something that hand washing and hand sanitizers can't fully address. "It creates another line of defense in terms of if somebody sneezes, and that virus gets aerosolized in the air, it's going to get destroyed instead of infecting somebody else," says Goswami.
Still, the purifier isn't intended to completely sterilize the air—just to bring indoor air, which can be five times more polluted than outdoor air, back to safer levels.
After 20 years of iteration and testing, including peer-reviewed studies, the new purifier is launching today on the startup's website.