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Live Labs Blog – Air quality sensors and living walls in Staffordshire

8 November 2021

Jake Harrison, Business Innovation Partner at Amey, talks about installing air quality sensors and living walls to improve air quality in Staffordshire.

Staffordshire’s Live Labs programme, SIMULATE, set out to create an air quality test bed to test, improve and scale innovative solutions that could have a direct impact on improving air quality.  

Staffordshire was looking to improve air quality on both a holistic and granular level, which can be achieved by removing harmful pollutants from the air or by removing or reducing particulates (PM2.5 and PM10), NOx and NO2 emitted from transport using the road network. 

Finding the correct sites to gather data and to see what impacts could be realised was an important milestone in the project. The project team worked with local air quality officers to choose four different test bed sites with the Air Quality Manager Areas (AQMAs). The test bed sites are at a primary school located next to a busy main road, a care home next to a roundabout, a town centre ring road and a busy crossroad. 

To address the challenges with air quality, we worked with innovators AirLabs and Earthsense who helped to install over 30 monitors across the sites.  

The sensors were installed to provide baseline data over a 6 to 12 month period, prior to any mitigations being deployed, in order to understand the impact of any solutions. Air quality can be affected by many factors including temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction. Therefore, it was important to gather a suitable amount of before to the launch of any potential solutions. 

The sensors measure and record any changes in air quality throughout the trial. This data will then be used as a direct indicator to understand the impact of the mitigations. 

To reach the point of having the sensors deployed hasn’t been without its challenges. One of the biggest was identifying suitable infrastructure for the sensors. We’ve worked with several additional partners to install solar panels which allow monitors to be placed on infrastructure without suitable power access. Furthermore, additional monitors have been deployed and handheld readings have been recorded to be used as a cross reference, ensuring an accurate reflection of air quality.

With the sensors in place and data collected, the team could start looking at ways to improve air quality. Working with innovators Biotecture and 40two, living wall solutions have been installed at two locations in Staffordshire. Biotecture is trialling an Active Green Wall - or Active Airflow Unit (AAU) - along the barrier wall of the Early Years Playground at Hassell Community Primary School in Newcastle-Under-Lyme, and 40two are trialling a living moss wall at a care home in Burton-on-Trent.

The trial with Biotecture is providing a live demonstration of the AAU technology, supplying the teams with evidence of air pollutant removal and the benefits to those living near the plant-based walls. Plants remove pollutants through their leaves, roots and through the microbial communities associated with their leaves or roots. These are known as the phyllosphere and rhizosphere. Pollutants are removed from the air by plants through the process phytoremediation. 

The aim is to use the AAU technology to direct cleansed air into clean air zones that provide relief from pollution. The AAU will remove pollution and expel this into a shelter which can provide a clean air zone. Without a shelter, the air that has been cleansed will dissipate into the atmosphere and is unlikely to provide a noticeable benefit to ambient air. 

The trial with 40two Technology looks at a variety of moss and lichen which are capable of capturing CO2, NO2, and fine particulate matter from the air, while releasing oxygen. The moss wall consists of a vertical structure, with the vertical surfaces covered in appropriate moss and cryptogamic plants that filter the air passing through and around. The structure has been placed between the care home and the road, with the data already demonstrating a reduction in airborne pollutants (NO2, CO2 and particulates) from the air around the accommodation.

The early evidence from our Live Lab programme suggests that using plants in locations such as buildings and public spaces adjacent to main roads, train stations and construction sites, has the potential to make a noticeable difference to the quality of air.