Airplanes are a technological marvel, giving humans the power of flight and letting us travel huge distances in a matter of hours. But they can also be gross. With rows upon rows of people squeezed into cramped seats, it’s hard not to imagine the clouds of germs that could be circulating throughout the cabin.
Fortunately, 17-year-old Raymond Wang has a solution. The teenage scientist created a small device that he says could increase fresh air inhalation on airplanes by as much as 190 percent.
In a recent TED Talk, Wang explained that each time a person sneezes on an airplane, that sneeze circulates the entire airplane cabin before being filtered out by vents on the sides of the plane. Essentially, a single sneeze can end up flowing past several rows of people, all of whom are potentially inhaling its pathogens.
To solve that problem, Wang came up with a tiny fan that controls airflow, pushing old air towards the plane’s filtration system instead of letting it circulate the cabin. Airplanes could be outfitted with rows of these devices, Wang explains, creating “walls of air” that separate passengers, allowing for “personalized breathing zones.”
Wang’s device—which took home the top prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair—has yet to be tested on actual airplanes. According to The Washington Post, he estimates that installing the technology would cost $1000 per plane. “I didn’t have the money to go out and buy a plane, so I decided to build a computer [simulation] instead,” he explains. Nevertheless, Wang’s idea draws upon hard data pulled from existing reports and his own three-dimensional simulations.
The young scientist believes the device has implications that go beyond avoiding everyday germs or catching a cold. Serious diseases can be spread via airplane—Wang cites one instance in which a man carrying the H1N1 virus infected 17 people during a single plane ride—and Wang hopes his device might even help prevent future epidemics.