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With National Science Foundation support, the team of researchers are investigating a smart ventilation control system | Image: Getty Images

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues, there is a need to look ahead for innovative new ways to make public buildings safer for both visitors and employees.

Dr. Zheng O’Neill of the J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Mechanical Engineering and a team of Texas A&M University researchers are seeking to develop a smart ventilation control system with grant support from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

O’Neill, who serves as associate professor and J. Mike Walker '66 Faculty Fellow II in the department, is partnering on the project with Dr. Qingsheng Wang, associate professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering, as well as her postdoctoral research associate Dr. Yangyang Fu and her doctoral student Xing Lu.

The goal of the project is to investigate the viability of a smart ventilation control system that could operate with a normal mode and an emergency “pandemic mode,” as needed, for common public buildings such as offices, classrooms and retail stores.

“During the outbreak period of the pandemic, to maintain essential activities, some public buildings such as retail stores and essential government facilities have to remain operational. Critical employees are required to work inside these public buildings,” O’Neill said.  “With proper measures, the built environment could help minimize the potential for COVID-19 infection, including smart and enhanced heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) design and operations, higher humidity levels, surface cleaning and hygiene specification, spatial configuration, etc.”

She said the social-economic impact generated by COVID-19 has the potential to be mitigated by the implementation of the proposed smart ventilation control system, increasing the resilience of HVAC systems and possibly reducing the infection risk even during times of global pandemic.

“These buildings are designed and operated in normal conditions by default,” O’Neill said. “The fundamental question is, with the current HVAC equipment and systems in existing public buildings, can we do something with a transformative and smart ventilation control by diluting the air in a space with cleaner air from outdoors to reduce the infection risk of an individual occupant?”