STEM-In-Action Fall Follow Up: Nature Breathe

Hello again! It's time to check in on our STEM-In-Action Grant winning teams! Over the next few months we will see posts from each of our winning teams to find out what they are up to this fall. In case you're just now tuning in, the U.S. Army Educational Outreach Program (AEOP) STEM-In-Action Grant awards eCYBERMISSION teams up to $5,000 to develop their projects into mature and scalable solutions in their community. Typically we award this honorary grant to five teams, but this year ten teams took home the prestigious award. The next team we're catching up with is Nature Breathe!


Hi, we are Team Nature Breathe, in real life, we are known as Ben, Delilah, and Ilana. Unless we are in trouble. We are now 10th graders at Taos Academy. We are from Taos, New Mexico, a nice high mountain town in the terminus of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains known for our Pueblo, ski resort, and mostly for agriculture. We grow some serious champion weeds.

Our project concentrates on turning noxious, invasive, and nearly immortal weeds into a useful product that can clear the air – literally. Nature Breathe is a filter for Heating, Cooling, and Air Conditioning Systems (HVAC) made out of plant materials, that has the potential of having the same efficiency of removing particles smaller than .3 nanometers and larger from the air, for a fraction of the cost of the common, synthetic plastic filters that are used in commercial and residential buildings. This is pretty handy in our current COVID pandemic world, where filters are supposed to be replaced and burned every two weeks to two months. Plastic burns with some pretty heavy carbon emissions, and can hang around in a landfill for a few hundred years, while plant material is sustainable, can be burned with less emission and also can be buried because it biodegrades. We originally picked a whole bunch of plants to test against, breaking them down and shaping them into mini filters, and to our happy surprise, found out that the worst of the weeds were the best of the filters.

How did we find out that our plant goo was better than the rest of the filters? We got to use LASERS. Yep. LASERS. Actually, a very cheap pen LASER bought from Amazon, and mounted to a mic stand and a lamp. We built a box out of repurposed plexiglass and black matte gaffer’s tape, got a little mini airbrush air compressor and made some really cool glowy fluorescent nanoparticles made out of glucose and copper. We used all of this, a microscope, and a really awesome 3D VFX program called Blender to test our plant material filters against commercial filters and even N95 masks. A bad product would allow aerosol nanoparticles through the material, which would be picked up by the LASER. A good product absorbed this glowy stuff. We found out that our plants, especially Rabbitbrush and Siberian Elm (both plants that probably could survive nuclear testing, and have…they can be found in Los Alamos) attract the nanoparticles. When used with a respiring recirculating HVAC system, they could clear the air as you go, making in-person work and school a lot safer during nearly every pandemic or epidemic that is related to aerosol airborne transmission.

How did we do our testing during COVID? Our school was shut down, and we were all remote, but we have a Team Advisor who thinks beyond the box, and socially distanced, Zoom meeting and masked us all the way to safely rotate out of her garage to do the testing. Some of us are back in school now, but still doing this experimentation out of the garage, because that’s where the chamber is located, and where it is safe to keep going. We also used the power of social media and the Internet with our closely guided and guarded Team Advisor watching the entire time as we reached out to experts in varying fields to help us complete this project ranging from aerosol, disease transmission, plant and material scientists, and VFX specialists from Hollywood (and in New Mexico: Tamalewood!) We are continuing in that path with more experts, and thanks to the STEM-In-Action Grant, we are trying to expand the filter concept towards more of a patented reality. We are continuing experimentation, determining if the materials can remain cohesive if expanded to the size of real filters, we are testing the efficiency of the filters against existing synthetic filters on the market, including those used in laboratories, and we are working to eliminate allergens in the plant materials. We are also honing in on more efficient methods to count particles that have been absorbed or have penetrated the materials. We would like to actually look toward making this an actual industry that has low environmental impact and is sustainable…because…plants.

We became involved with eCYBERMISSION through the advice of our Team Advisor, who has sponsored teams for over 7 years. Ben was the original concept designer of the plant filter, while Delilah was the one who thought of how far we could take it, and Ilana researched how much further detail could be added. We have since added more members to help us out with the expansion. Ben and Delilah are also entering a revised version into the Sustainability Challenge from Arizona State University, and into the Conrad Challenge as part of our publicity, continued funding, and outreach efforts. Work started in July and we are continuing to work around our school schedules, and the occasional pesky COVID quarantine. Our ultimate goal is to make Nature Breathe as common as a HEPA filter and to improve the health and safety of in-person, enclosed work areas everywhere.


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