Researcher designs better ventilation controls to stop spread of Covid-19

New approach controls viruses indoors to hopefully avoid future pandemic shutdowns

An engineering researcher is building smarter controls for building ventilation systems to maximize fresh air intake and minimize the spread of viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

Yousef Alipouri
Yousef Alipouri

Yousef Alipouri’s project is one of six to receive new funding from the Alberta Innovates Graduate Fellowship in Health Innovation.

“With our approach we can control viruses indoors and hopefully avoid shutdowns like we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Alipouri, a post-doctoral fellow in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Engineering. “It will be beneficial to industry and to all Albertans.”

Public health organizations including the World Health Organization and Alberta Health Services have stated that poor heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in indoor spaces – ranging from restaurants and factories to schools and even airplanes – likely contribute to the spread of disease through airborne transmission.

Alipouri’s supervisor, Lexuan Zhong, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to study the role of HVAC systems in COVID-19 transmission. Alipouri and Zhong began the control project last year with funding from Mitacs, and recently published early results.

The new control system will use sensors, image processing and machine learning to optimize HVAC systems depending on how the space is being used. For example, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers now recommends that ventilation systems should be operated for two hours before a building is occupied and continued until two hours after it’s vacated. The control system will learn to predict occupancy so it only runs when needed, to conserve energy and reduce costs. Temperature and humidity will be constantly monitored and adjusted to remain at optimum levels.


FROM THE ARCHIVES: Can COVID-19 spread through ventilation systems?


The system could even detect whether everyone is wearing a mask upon entering the building, or register that someone is sneezing or coughing, and respond by increasing ventilation when the risk is deemed higher.

“If you look at the HVAC systems that are available in the market in Canada right now, most companies are looking for this type of functionality – a kind of pandemic mode for HVAC,” Alipouri said.

The next step for the research will be to build a simulator to show how the virus responds to varying indoor air conditions. Alipouri is also working with HVAC companies to test and implement the system.

Five other University of Alberta researchers also received Alberta Innovates Postdoctoral Fellowships in Health Innovation, for a total of $660,000 over two years, with the possibility of up to $330,000 in one-year renewals. The goal of the fellowships is to drive growth and competitiveness in health care.

Vahid Abdollah, Faculty of Engineering

Abdollah will collaborate with Spinal Cord Injury Alberta to study functional electrical stimulation cycling, which involves applying an electrical current to a spinal cord injury patient’s skin to activate weak or paralyzed muscles. While this treatment is commonly prescribed for people with chronic injuries to improve cardiovascular health and build muscle, this project will examine whether the treatment can be applied within 10 days of an injury to promote recovery of injured nerves.

Anika Rahman, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry

Rahman will study the biochemical and metabolic changes that occur within red blood cells that are frozen and later thawed, in order to preserve them for transfusion.

Dinesh Babu, Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences

Clozapine is the only drug approved for patients with treatment-resistant schizophrenia, but it can cause severe side-effects, such as lowered white blood cell count and inflammation of the heart, which can lead to a heart attack. Babu will look for small genetic changes that predict these problems, and will also test an antioxidant to try to prevent them.

Kristine Godziuk, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine

Godziuk will develop a screening program to detect sarcopenia, a serious health condition that leads to low muscle mass, in patients who also have advanced osteoarthritis in their knees. The screening will analyze handgrip strength and body composition. Godziuk will also study whether people with sarcopenia have poorer outcomes following knee replacement surgery.

MD Monirujjaman, Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences

It’s known that polyunsaturated fatty acids from fish oil are good for health, particularly for people with inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, but they aren’t very palatable. Similar oils can be derived from plants such as flax and corn gromwell (Buglossoides arvensis). Monirujjaman will study whether plant-derived oils can reduce the severity of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.

| By Gillian Rutherford for Troy Media

This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. Folio is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

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