Five-Story Biowall of Plants Serves as a Living Laboratory for Air Quality Research
October 20, 2011
Beyond the DNA-like helical staircase in Drexel University’s new Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, the atrium’s great showpiece is a vertical wall of living plants, 20 feet wide, rising five stories (75 feet) in height – the largest such wall in North America and the only one at a U.S. university. But the biowall is not just for show. It is an active living filter that removes volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the air. Scientists and students at Drexel are studying the biowall and the plant and microbe communities responsible for its air filtration properties to get a better understanding of how it works.
Dr. Michael Waring, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering who specializes in indoor environmental engineering, will focus on the chemical and physical aspects of the living wall, while two biology faculty members from the College of Arts and Sciences,Dr. Jacob Russell and Dr. Shivanthi Anandan will focus on the wall’s biological functions.
In one part of their study, the researchers will evaluate a small-scale aeroponic growing system to determine if such bench-scale designs can be used for efficient research into biowall systems. “If we find out that it closely mimics microbial communities and VOC removal on the wall itself, this is something that researchers can use to set up in their labs to quickly do research for biowalls without needing the biowall itself,” Waring said.
In their laboratory apparatus, the researchers will suspend plants’ roots inside a chamber and measure the concentrations of chemicals in air flowing out of the chamber. Waring will then compare these measurements to samples taken from full-scale work on the biowall itself, using air samples drawn from each of eight sampling ports built into the back of the wall for research use. In their biological studies, described in more detail below, Russell and Anandan will compare the microbial communities in the model system with those found on the biowall.
“One of the really exciting things about this project is that we can test what the wall does in a real building rather than just presume that it works as well as it’s supposed to,” Waring said.
For more information on the biowall, click here.