September 30, 2022 | 10:14 AM
An-Li became a reporter while completing her law degree at Stanford. In law school, she wrote about housing affordability, criminal justice and economic development, among other topics. She also served as the intern to NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, helping Ms. Totenberg to cover the U.S. Supreme Court and other legal matters. Originally from Pittsburgh, An-Li interned with the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before joining 90.5 WESA in August
An-Li Herring / 90.5 WESA
By now, thousands of visitors at the Pittsburgh International Airport have passed by an eight-foot-tall structure holding giant illuminated tubes of green bubbling liquid.
It’s not an art installation: It’s an air purifier, containing more than 100 gallons of algae that absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen through photosynthesis.
East Liberty-based startup Algenair assembled the unit, called an aerium, last week, and it now stands next to a former Starbucks in baggage claim.
“I think we actually disappointed a lot of people when we were installing it because they kept coming up saying, ‘Oh, are you putting the Starbucks back?’” Algenair co-founder and CEO Kelsey Abernathy said with a smile.
“We had to say no. But once we told them what we were putting in, I think that brightened their mood slightly.”
She said people are often surprised to learn that elevated indoor carbon dioxide levels have been linked to symptoms such as headache, fatigue, and dizziness. They’ve also been shown to hurt decision making, cognitive functioning, and worker productivity, according to research cited by Algenair.
The condition is known as “sick building syndrome,” and Abernathy’s co-founder, Dan Fucich, said the health effects are especially problematic in modern buildings that are thoroughly sealed to increase energy efficiency. They trap more of the carbon dioxide that people produce when they exhale.
“So we’re suffocating in the buildings that we think that are good for the environment, but the humans are suffering inside,” he said. “We want to use living technology, things like our aeriums, so that we don’t have to sacrifice human health for energy efficiency.”
The airport’s aerium has the photosynthetic capacity of more than 5,000 plants, according to Algenair. It’s a larger version of a purifier the company already sells directly to consumers to neutralize the air in a single room.
In both products, cells of microalgae, called spirulina, are suspended in Algenair’s proprietary nutrient solution. The algae grow as it eats more carbon dioxide, turning from a pale translucent green to dark opaque green. At that point, it’s removed and put to other uses.
“The algae can be used for anything from fertilizer [to] compost. It can be sold to make pigments, nutrition, biofuels, [and] bioplastic,” Abernathy said. “There’s a lot of opportunity here. And so we’re going to be exploring different partnerships.”
Algenair is piloting the unit in baggage claim as part of a partnership with xBridge Innovation Center, a program that allows startups to test products at the airport.
“Their vision for the company is to improve indoor air quality in general,” xBridge director Cole Wolfson said of Algenair. “In order to do that, they have to start working at a commercial scale. And the airport is a willing and enthusiastic partner for testing these types of technologies. This is the first installation of this kind anywhere in the world, and it’s something that we can integrate … into the future state of the Pittsburgh airport.”
The pilot comes four years after Abernathy and Fucich founded Algenair as doctoral students at the University of Maryland. They relocated from Baltimore to Pittsburgh last winter after winning a spot at the AlphaLab Gear business accelerator in East Liberty.
Fucich said they were attracted by Pennsylvania’s manufacturing capabilities.
“We wanted to [make our] supply lines as short as possible and make as much as possible in the United States,” Fucich said.
Algenair will test its commercial-scale purifier in a local school system and office building, too, Abernathy said. It plans to begin selling the product in 2024.