Rensselaer Research Review Fall 2010
* Renewable and Alternative Energy

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.

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 earned an 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. 

A biomechanical hybrid, the AMP system draws on NASA research that 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. AMP units also can be retrofitted to work with existing HVAC systems.

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

 “There’s a lot of talk, now, about greening the outside environment,” Vollen says. “But we’ve found a way to green the environment from within.”

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