Max Ma, ERS, for Zondits
China has a big problem – one that is suffocating, blinding, and growth-stifling. It is the smog, and it is only getting worse. On days with the most severe smog, factory productions are halted, automotive transportation is limited, and schools are cancelled. In the densely populated financial and industrial centers of the country, climate change has exacerbated the problem by disrupting wind patterns, starving major cities like Beijing and Tianjin of natural bulk ventilation when it is needed most.
Bai Feili, a production engineer living in the industrial powerhouse Shenyang in the northeast of China, is among many seeking to improve life in the smog. Like most of his compatriots, Mr. Bai relies on the protection of masks during his commute to work by bicycle each day. Bai’s favorite part of his job, however, more than compensates for his hazardous commute.
“I always look forward to the tasks that require me to put on the personal protective equipment,” shares Bai. The equipment, commonly referred to as PPE, includes a powered hood that actively ventilates the air, used in the oxygen-starved conditions in his chemical plant. “I feel at peace and focused only within the hood,” Bai said in a dreamy tone. “It tastes like the clean air in the forest when I was a child.”
Bai has a dream of sharing the joy of pure air with all smog sufferers in China but knows that these expensive PPE hoods are outside the reach of most Chinese residents. Besides, he needed something more convenient, stylish, and self-powering. The starting materials for his venture into hood manufacturing? Motorcycle helmets, industrial-grade air filters, miniature fans and batteries, and a lot of perseverance.
After three months of iterations, Bai’s solar-powered actively ventilated masks (AVMs) are finally ready for the market. The AVM resembles a traditional motorcycle helmet but has air intake at the front and exhaust at the top. The top portion of the AVM is covered in a solar panel that generates the power for the tiny fan imbedded just inside the intake vent. The battery is no larger than one found in a typical cellphone. The filter, battery, and even the fan can be replaced with a pop of a cover. Best of all, the AVM is light, comfortable, and expected to be economical once reaching large-scale production.
“The AVM still requires improvements,” Bai admitted. “I did not anticipate that the sunlight during smoggy days would be so weak as to disable the ventilation fan,” he elaborated, “but with a few minutes of rest under a streetlight, the ventilation would be good for another half an hour.” Bai might discover the harsh reality of power outages during severe smog when power plants are forced to cut back output, but we did not have the heart to darken his spirit.
On the bright side (no pun intended), the AVM has become an instant hit with environmentalists searching for fashionable gear during environmental protests. “The AVM conceals our faces, so we may remain anonymous during protests if the authorities crack down,” shared one environmental activist who declined to be identified. Another activist offered some practical advice for wearing the helmet on those dark days: When the sun is blocked and you are on a bicycle just pedal as fast as you can, and the combined effect of your accelerated breathing and increased air pressure outside the intake will push enough air through the filter even without the fan.
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