Uproxx knows that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines are driving the future of this planet forward. Every day, we see new ideas, fresh innovations, and bold trailblazers in these fields. Follow us this month as we highlight how STEM is shaping the culture of NOW.
Pretty much every movie about a viral outbreak has this scene: A group of unknowing passengers board an airplane, and everything looks normal except…one of them is sick. The camera shows us this random man in a suit sneezing and sweating. He has something that looks harmless to the rest of the passengers and crew. A flu, maybe. But as the audience, we know better. We pan the airplane to see all of the unlucky people, going about their lives, unaware that this is their last day on Earth. Because by the time the sequence is over the man in the suit has collapsed, with blood oozing out of his nose and eyes. Extreme close up of the air filters, sucking up this airborne virus from the back row and spitting it out in the pilot’s cabin. The plane is doomed.
The reason that this is such a common horror movie moment is that it taps into our collective fear of the airflow on airplanes. We’re trapped in the sky with every pathogen that the other passengers have brought on — just circulating and re-circulating through a small, enclosed space. It’s enough to make your skin crawl. With every outbreak of a worldwide disease, you’ll see people traveling with face masks and hand sanitizer, desperately trying to ward off the invisible germs cycling all around them. It’s terrifying.
Raymond Wang was just a teenager when the world was in the throes of panic over H1N1, but he became interested by the problem of pathogens circulating in air cabins. This curiosity continued to grow after the 2014 Ebola outbreak. So the innovative high schooler decided to tackle the problem. He began doing research into the airflow of pathogens on planes, and his findings were alarming.
He used fluid dynamics to create simulations of how air flows on the crafts and found that the way airflow is currently directed actually helps pathogens spread further and faster. He also discovered that there seemed was very little research being done to combat the issue.
“Given how problematic these things are, it’s actually surprising how understudied they are,” Wang says. “A lot of the fund-backed efforts are dedicated to making sure the airplane flies. But it leaves the aircraft cabin passenger comfort, passenger health, lower on the priority list.”
Wang’s research led him to look for creative, affordable ways to minimize the sharing of air flow on flights. In doing so, he came up with a surprisingly simple solution: He invented a small, fin shaped device that he calls his patented air inlet system. The piece of plastic fits into the airplane’s existing air slots. Then the air inlet system increases fresh airflow and redirects pathogens out of circulation.