Where clean air is rare, Smart Air aims to make it affordable for all

 A typically hazy day engulfs Beijing's Forbidden City. 

A typically hazy day engulfs Beijing's Forbidden City. 

Behind China's economic miracle lurks a silent killer, slowly suffocating millions of innocent people. Yup, the air in Beijing is that bad. 

Every day, some 21.5 million people in this teeming metropolis suck in air that is dangerously polluted. Since the 1990s, smog in China has taken 2.5 billion years off of the lives of some 500 million people. Beijing's concentration of PM2.5s, the tiny particles in the air that are small enough to get into a person’s respiratory system, average six times the EPAs recommended levels. Beijing's air is actually worse than an airport smoking lounge. 

And, the people of Beijing know it. 

“People in Beijing know how bad the air is, but there isn’t a big sense of doing anything about it,” Paddy Robertson, China Head at Smart Air said. “We’re designing educational programs to help with awareness and education — to tell people that there’s something they can do.”

Smart Air does a lot of work behind the scenes to help improve the quality of air people breathe in developing countries. In addition to running educational programs, the company does consumer-focused research on things like air pollution masks, air purifiers and filters. If you want to know if you should buy a 3M mask or a Vogmask, or how long a HEPA filter is good for, they've done the research. 

But, what's made Smart Air the talk of Beijing is their unconventional approach to to creating an air purifier that is effective, yet affordable for the masses. 

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“Our first DIY product was simply a filter attached to a fan,” Robertson said. “It’s amazing how effective that is.”

Yup, the company's minimum viable product was literally a room fan with a HEPA filter attached with a strip of velcro. And, in addition to being a popular topic of conversation around town, Smart Air's air purifiers actually work. When we visited SmartAir’s offices for a demo, the air quality in the room went from a health-nauseating 170 AQI to a downright fresh AQI of 7 within a couple of minutes of turning on the fan.

“All commercially available air purifiers are basically just a fan and a filter,” Robertson said. “You might have a model that looks a little nicer or has a remote, but in the end, all air purifiers are really just a fan that blows air through a filter.”

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Surviving Airpocalypse

Smart Air was founded by Thomas Talhelm, an American professor at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. In the winter of 2013 Talhelm was studying in China when Beijing’s already smoggy air took a dark turn. In what was later dubbed ‘Airpocalypse,’ the city's measured concentration of PM2.5s was 886 micrograms per cubic meters, blowing away a health scale that usually topped out at 500. The smog was so bad that flights were grounded, highways closed and schools shuttered. 

Talhelm, then a penny-pinching college student, found himself priced out of the commercial air purifiers sold in stores. So, he strapping a HEPA filter onto a fan and hoped for the best. 

“He checked the filter after a couple of weeks and it was black,” Robertson said. “He figured it must have worked.” 

The company has since tested their DIY models against many of the big brand-name models and found that there's really not a huge difference. Talhelm's simple device was capable of removing 92 percent of the PM2.5s in the air, and the company sells them today for around $30. The professional models tend to pull around 96 percent of the PM 2.5s in the air and cost as much as five times as much. 

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“We started doing workshops to teach people how to make their own DIY air purifiers,” Robertson said. “And the workshops just kept selling out. One after another. But, even though we were teaching people how to make their own purifiers, they kept asking us if they could just buy one from us.”

So, the company started to sell ready-made air purifiers based off of Talhelm's original design. Their first model, still available today, is an exact replica of the one he made in his room in 2013. The company has since branched out and now makes several new models that are designed to work in larger spaces like restaurants and gyms. 

“Our DIY purifiers aren’t objects of beauty,” Robertson said. “That’s something we’re working on now — we want everyone to be able to afford to breathe clean air.”

Unfortunately, it's not just China that suffers from horrendous air. By some measures, New Delhi's air is worse and much of the developing world has less than healthy air quality. To serve them, Smart Air has branched out to India, Nepal, Mongolia and the Philippines, where they offer educational programs and DIY air purifiers.

A fan tied to a filter may not solve the developing world's pollution problems, but it is a common sense solution that will allow untold millions to safely breathe deeply.