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To help curb pollution, this brick filters the air before it comes inside the building

Effects from air pollution cause 3.3 million premature deaths each year, and that number could double by 2050, according to a recent study from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. Researchers were surprised to learn that small domestic fires were the main source of pollution in India and China. It’s one reason options like solar-powered grills might one day replace these more dangerous cooking methods.

But fires are often used to heat homes, too, and there are plenty of other sources of pollution. Finding a way to clean the air might be in our best interest. Carmen Trudell, an assistant professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s school of architecture, hopes to find the answer in the Breathe Brick.

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Breathe Brick DiagramThe brick received a citation for Architect Magazine’s 2015 R+D Awards and is part of a double-wall system that wouldn’t require electricity. It’s made of porous concrete and has an internal cyclone filter. Basing the idea on a vacuum cleaner, Trudell and her team thought spinning the air as it passes through the brick could help remove particulates, which would then be shunted through a shaft to a collection hopper at the base of the wall. The filtered air would feed into the HVAC system, and buildings without such a system would receive the cleaner air passively through vents. Tests performed by Cal Poly engineering students using a small-scale wind tunnel found the prototypes captured 30 percent of fine particles, like those found in smoke and haze.

While Trudell says it’s a relatively inexpensive solution, juror Joyce Hwang wondered about the maintenance issues of “having thousands of Britas in your house,” and Trudell admitted the hoppers would require regular cleaning. Still, another juror, Steven Rainville, said, “Breathe Brick is a clever way of taking the heavy particulates out of the air as a byproduct of making a building.”