Real-time air sampling provides welcome relief to allergy sufferers

Cutting-edge technology is set to deliver new insight into the air we breathe. A range of sectors stand to benefit, from healthcare to agriculture

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Sophisticated optical counters can be used to identify viable particles in pharmaceutical cleanrooms, monitor pollen grains in the air, track plant fungal pathogens and more

The importance of outdoor and indoor air quality needs no explanation, but real-time, precise information about what is present in the air is still relatively untapped by those who could stand to benefit. If we focus only on the solid airborne particles present in the air we breathe, there is not much to report: the common standard provides particulate matter (PM) concentrations such as PM1, PM10 and the recently added PM2.5.

Little further information is available. To gain additional insight, most institutions and services active in the field will say that air must be sampled and analysed in a laboratory. As such, it is difficult to determine in real time the amount of allergenic particles the air contains, how many fungal plant pathogens are transported by the wind, or the quantity of spores present in the operating theatre of a hospital. But revolution is in the air.

Just the beginning
The first tool that was adapted to analyse air quality was sampling, where filtering plates are used to measure the mass change created by the accumulation of particles. This led to the creation of PM standards, which assess how many micrograms of particles were present per cubic metre of air. The method is simple and efficient, but incredibly unspecific. Next came the introduction of an optical counter based on light scattering techniques, which allowed for the elimination of the filter plate.

Soon, highly specific air quality detectors will be deployed globally and users will have access to real-time data online

With the arrival of the Internet of Things and big data, optical counters could be connected to the cloud and analysed in real time. This allowed for the creation of a much broader spectrum of products and services to public, agricultural and pharmaceutical sectors. Still, as every sensor is blind and cannot distinguish a piece of car tyre from a pollen grain, even millions of connected sensors cannot provide accurate information. For example, if someone suffers from a pollen allergy – especially if that allergy is specific to, say, certain trees and not grasses – optical counters wouldn’t provide the right data.

Breath of fresh air

The arrival of sophisticated optical counters that go beyond simple light scattering techniques, together with the enormous progress in artificial intelligence, have made it possible to create new solutions. These can monitor a small but very specific fraction of airborne particles, the data from which can be processed immediately with robust identification algorithms that indicate exactly what the particle was. This technology can be used to identify viable particles (ones that contain living microorganisms) in pharmaceutical cleanrooms, monitor pollen grains in the air during spring and summer seasons, track plant fungal pathogens and more.

Soon, highly specific air quality detectors will be deployed globally and, instead of relying on imprecise forecasting models – in the case of pollens, for example – or slow air sampling and post-analysis, users will have access to real-time data online. This could be used at every level, from multinational corporations to the individual: people with allergies will know exactly whether air is clean before they leave their homes in the morning; farmers will know whether fungicide treatment should be carried out to prevent disease; and patients will be safe from nosocomial infection in hospital environments. This data, when used in combination with other measurements, promises to reveal just what is in each breath we take.