Air flow research could reduce disease

Study shows how modeling can enhance ventilation to mitigate microbe spread


Air flow in a room can impact the transmission of viruses like COVID-19.

A Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist is studying how heating, ventilation and air conditioning, HVAC, system configurations and building designs could mitigate the spread of microorganisms, including viruses, that are detrimental to human health.

Maria King, Ph.D., director of the Center for Agricultural Air Quality Engineering and Science in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, recently received a $400,000, two-year National Institutes of Health grant to study the aerial paths of pathogens in health care facilities. The study should shed light on a largely invisible aspect of building design that has a large impact on human health.

King said the study bridges scientific disciplines including biology, virology, computational modeling and engineering to applied research in an exciting and innovative way. The study also comes after the world has spent several years dealing with outbreaks of COVID-19, which primarily spreads through the air.

This innovative engineering perspective is making a big impact on the way facilities look at air flow design, King said.

“Using engineering to look at life science problems is making a big difference in how we look at disease prevention,” she said. “We’re realizing the potential that engineering tools and perspectives can present to addressing sanitation or taking on microbes and organisms that impact human health.”

Interdisciplinary research uses models, simulations to pattern air flow

Ventilation systems are a part of most built environments, so the effect of air properties on aerosolized viruses is critically important to study. Researchers will use air flow modeling and simulations to visually pattern how pathogens can move within a space based on the various factors. King’s study will answer fundamental questions related to that movement.

King hopes the new project can educate scientists and engineers about how viruses transport through a space in various bioaerosol forms, such as droplets from a cough or sneeze.

The goal is to help develop and implement interdisciplinary ventilation strategies and guidelines within design.