A Canadian Teen Might Have Solved the Spread of Disease on Airplanes

A Canadian teenager has apparently figured out one of the most off-putting things about air travel: how germs disseminate among passengers on planes.

He also has a solution to stop it.

First, 17-year-old Raymond Wang took home the winning $75,000 prize last spring at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his work on the subject. Not too long after, he was speaking at TED, explaining how his interest was piqued in the topic during last year’s Ebola outbreak.

Wang began the initiative by examining cases of how germs had spread, including a flight that left 17 people with bird flu after one infected man boarded the plane.

In the TED talk, Wang describes how pathogens are spread from one unsuspecting passenger to another as air was pumped around the cabin. Using fluid dynamics, he created computational simulations of how air moves on airplanes, and discovered the disturbing truth that when a person sneezes on a plane, the airflow actually helps to spread pathogens to other passengers.

His solution is a tiny fin-shaped fan that recirculates air out of the cabin rather than pumping stale air around continually, helping to restrict the spread of diseases during the flights. Currently air most circulates in the centre of the cabin.

Wang explains how his filters would revolutionize air travel by creating “personalized breathing zones” regardless of a passenger’s position in the plane. The invention would improve the availability of fresh air in the cabin by 190 per cent, and would reduce the concentration of airborne germs by 55 times.

Wang says the device could be implemented overnight and save the airline industry billions of dollars (not to mention, potentially save lives).

Some perspective: the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak resulted in 774 deaths and is estimated to have cost the aviation industry $40 million, according to the World Health Organization.