Inside Rensselaer
Using Root Systems To Save Energy, Clear the Air Using Root Systems To Save Energy, Clear the Air
The Active Modular Phytoremediation system, created by researchers at the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology, is designed to harness and boost the air purifying properties of plants. Assembled modules are placed in a testing chamber to measure the air-cleaning power of different plant species and the overall effectiveness of the system.
Using Root Systems To Save Energy, Clear the Air
Researchers at the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE) have developed a “green” system that uses plant roots and traditional heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to reduce energy consumption and improve air quality in buildings of all shapes and sizes.

A collaboration of Rensselaer and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the world’s leading architecture, engineering, and urban design firms, CASE strives to push the boundaries of environmental performance in urban building systems. Its “green” system is an excellent example.

The Active Modular Phytoremediation (AMP) system is designed to harness and boost the air purifying properties of plants. It consists of a collection of pods, each of which is filled with hydroponic plants whose roots are left exposed. As air from the HVAC system circulates through the pods, microbial colonies in the root rhizosphere digest airborne toxins, feeding the plant and dramatically improving indoor air quality.

Large-scale plantings and green walls are making inroads, especially in commercial spaces. But few systems can match the air purification potential, energy savings, flexibility, and aesthetic appeal of the CASE AMP system, which recently earned an Annual R & D Award from Architect magazine.

“There are precedent systems, but we believe ours to be unique because it combines modularity and active phytoremediation in a hydroponic, aeroponic system,” said Anna Dyson, director of CASE and associate professor in the School of Architecture. Dyson; Jason Vollen, associate professor; and Ted Ngai, clinical assistant professor, are the principal investigators for the AMP system.

Additional Rensselaer project contributors include Mark Mistur, associate dean of architecture; Matt Gindlesparger, clinical assistant professor; Lupita Montoya, former assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; and students Ahu Aydogan, EmilyRae Brayton, David Beil, and Tyler Stoutt.

A biomechanical hybrid, the AMP system draws on NASA research which found that forcing air through plant root systems can increase their air-cleaning capacity by more than 200 percent. That, in turn, can significantly reduce the need for heating and ventilation, which account for 40 percent to 50 percent of building energy costs and consumption.

“If we’re cleaning the air within the building, we’re expending considerably less energy to filter exterior air and bring it to room temperature,” Vollen said. “We’re improving air quality and, at the same time, dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of the building.”

Among the most innovative features of the AMP system is its modular design. Because most green “walls” tend to be oversized, their use is limited primarily to atria and other large commercial spaces. But AMP units can easily be adapted for commercial and residential facilities, regardless of their size or configuration. AMP units also can be retrofitted to work with existing HVAC systems.

“That addresses a much larger market — and a much greater need,” Vollen said.

The AMP system is scheduled to be installed in the in Public Safety Answering Center II (PSAC II), a Bronx emergency response center scheduled to open within the next five years.

The columns will be placed between the lobby and the cafeteria, where employees are most likely to gather and to reap the greatest benefits from the phytoremediation system.

“We know, from anecdotal information and from studies, that there are physiological and psychological advantages to being near plants when we’re indoors,” Vollen said. “One of our design considerations was to bring a sense of the outdoors to a building that, for security reasons, doesn’t have a lot of windows.

“There’s a lot of talk, now, about greening the outside environment,” he added. “But we’ve found a way to green the environment from within.”
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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 4, Number 6, April 2, 2010
©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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