Horizon Prize winner is an Innovative air filter that can cut pollution at scale

A ceramic honeycomb air filter developed by a research team from Corning SAS, France, has won the EU Horizon Prize on Materials for Clean Air. The new type of outdoor filter could cut city air pollution levels.

The European Commission announced the winner of the EU Horizon Prize on Materials for Clean Air, yesterday at the Innovative Industries for Smart Growth Conference in Vienna, Austria. A ceramic honeycomb air filter developed by a research team from Corning SAS, France, won the €3 million award, funded by the EU’s research and innovation programme. 

Led by Dr Jean-Jacques Theron, materials director at the Corning European Technology Center, the team has developed a filter adapting to the company’s existing technology, that can remove up to 95% of fine particulate matter from the air and maintain it below the World Health Organisation air quality guidelines. Their invention can reduce the concentration of particulate matter in cities, both indoors and outdoors. For indoor treatment, the solution can be combined with existing air ventilation systems. Outdoors, a modular kiosk-sized system can be placed in highly polluted areas, or close to schools or hospitals.

Jean-Jacques Theron [credit – EU]
Dr Theron said that he was inspired by colleagues working in the company’s Chinese lab. “It is very well known that particulate pollution levels in Chinese urban areas can sometimes be pretty high,” he said. “There are some places where you cannot even see 10 metres ahead of you. It seems not to be that bad in Europe, but when you start to dig into the data – especially (when you look at) fine and ultrafine particles, some of them are not even visible but they have a detrimental effect to the health.”

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution currently poses the biggest environmental risk to human health. In its new report, Air Pollution and Child Health: Prescribing Clean Air, WHO have revealed that toxic polluted air is having a calamitous impact on billions of children around the world. Every day around 93% of the world’s children under the age of 15 years (1.8 billion children) are breathing air that is so polluted it puts their health and development at serious risk, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths. 

Carlos Moedas, Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation said, “In many European cities, air pollution is a major concern for citizens because it affects their health and causes environmental problems. The innovative solution developed by Dr Theron and his team will contribute to decrease the concentration of particulate matter particularly in highly contaminated urban areas.”

To tackle the problem, Theron’s team decided to adapt a filter designed to capture vehicle emissions so that it could clean the air of particulates. In line with the prize criteria, they had to ensure that it was sustainable, compatible with the environment and affordable.

“We adapted and developed the filter concept which was initially invented at Corning for mobile emissions. The main challenge here, and one of the reasons why we could not just stick it outside, is the large diversity of particles for outdoor applications – dust, fly ash, smoke, aerosols, fumes, mist and condensing vapours – versus the ones from mobile emissions – soot particles from internal combustion engine emissions,” said Theron.

[credits: Corning SAS]
The key to the filter is the honeycomb design and ceramic materials. As air passes through the structure, particulate matter sticks to the walls, leaving clean air to be expelled. The structure is geared to obtain a very large filtration area over a very small space, according to the team. “The ceramics are important firstly because we have the opportunity to manipulate them into honeycomb structures and secondly because the ceramic is porous, which enables it to capture the finer particles,” said Theron. The material that forms the filter is called cordierite – it’s made from a blend of clay, alumina, talc and silica. “These are all-natural inorganic materials,” Theron said. Cordierite has a high melting point, which makes it very durable.

The combination of material and design leads to a highly effective filtration system. The design of the final system is still being finalised, but a full-size unit could be around 10 metres tall and deliver 3.6 million cubic metres of purified air every day. The researchers will use some of their prize money to work out how many units would be needed to ensure clean air in a given area, and the stations will be designed to adapt to various pollution levels so the strength of the filtration process can be adjusted. 

The technology is still in the prototype phase, but the money from the Horizon Prize will go towards getting it onto the market, hopefully in time for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Theron envisages that the filters will be officially launched at the Olympics, and the stations could be placed in the Olympic Village, with the goal of providing the athletes with a source of high-quality purified air.

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Ayush Verma

Ayush Verma

Ayush is a correspondent at iamrenew.com and writes on renewable energy and sustainability. As an engineering graduate trying to find his niche in the energy journalism segment, he also works as a staff writer for saurenergy.com.

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