An Interview with Head of Delos Labs, Jie Zhao, PhD
Nature is a knockout. The roses in heady bloom, the trees aglitter with leaves! But as many of us are all too aware, the stunning foliage can have some excruciating consequences on our airways. Non-stop sneezing has folks madly researching air purifiers, and there are a ton of products out there on the market. With allergies being enough of a headache, we’re here to help you separate the myths from the facts.
Head of Delos Labs, Jie Zhao, PhD, speaks with us about air purification technologies, use case innovations, and his background as a scientist.
Q: What is Delos Labs, and how did you get here?
A: I joined Delos five years ago as a scientist and today I lead Labs, which is our R&D arm. My background is in electrical engineering, and I got a PhD in Building Performance and Diagnostics from Carnegie Mellon. My research focuses on Human-building Interactions, which is the study of sustainability, energy efficiency, human behavior, comfort, health and productivity in the built environment. Before joining Delos, I worked as a Senior Engineer with Lutron on smart building technologies.
The mission of Labs is to infuse science into every aspect of our business, from product development to marketing to sales. Our focus is on everything that can impact people in their living environment. Scientifically speaking, there are two things we can easily modify to help make people healthier: our environment and our behavior.
From its inception, Delos has taken an evidence-based and data-driven approach. Our research, development and business mission has always been on passive environmental solutions that don’t require people to do anything extra or out of their way. The idea is that your air, water and light automatically feel better, as soon as you walk into your space.
Once you accept the benefit of living in a healthier environment, there’s a higher likelihood you’ll choose healthier behaviors– like downloading a mindfulness app or booking a wellness hotel room. The passive environmental solution nudges us to more actively seek behavioral changes for a healthier lifestyle.
Q: Air purification is top of mind because of allergy season and Covid-19. What exactly does the Delos unit filter for?
A: With air purification, the first thing to think about is particulate matter – which includes allergens like pollen. Whether microscopic (PM2.5) or visible to the human eye (PM10), particulate matter is ubiquitous in our air and has a massively negative impact on our respiratory, cardiovascular, and even neurological systems.
The other thing of particular concern right now is of course pathogens like Covid-19. By now, we understand that the majority of transmission is not through touching surfaces, but through direct human-to-human touch and – most significantly – aerosol particles. Air has become the most critical media to focus on in reducing virus transmission.
Viruses fall under the category of microorganisms, which also include bacteria and fungi. Our Advanced Air Purification is specifically designed to capture and deactivate a wide range of microorganisms in the air, which is why we are recommending it for public buildings like schools, offices, movie theaters or shopping malls that are looking to create safer environments as we reopen from the pandemic.
Q: We’re trusting this technology to help keep kids and communities safe. What’s your process for understanding whether the Delos Air Purifier is actually doing what it says it’s doing?
A: Our Labs team undertakes a rigorous review process for each of our products. We have reviewed about 150 products related to air quality, including air purifiers, air quality sensors, and filters.
- Material Safety: First we look at the material construction to see if there are any potentially harmful or red-listed materials in the machine.
- Functionality and Performance. This is the most important category for air purifiers, and there are standard tests focusing on specific pollutants. For the Healthway Compact unit, we reviewed a number of third party testing reports to validate the system performance. For example, ensuring that it in fact reduces particulate matter on various levels, or meets the safety threshold limit for ozone as a byproduct.
- Claims and labels. Next we look to make sure that whatever the manufacturer is claiming about their product is substantiated. The claims have to be substantiated by proof, which can come in the form of testing reports or other documentation from the manufacturer.
- User Experience. Finally, we collaborate with the Delos Product team to make sure the unit is easy to use. For example, is it easy to switch out the filters, is it a simple plug in for operation, can you carry it anywhere – these kinds of details.
Q: You mentioned ozone, which while protective at an atmospheric level is harmful on a respiratory level. Do the Delos air purifiers emit ozone?
A: Most electronic filtration systems produce ozone as a byproduct. Ozone is a product of the oxidation process, or the reaction high voltage devices have to gases or particles in the air. Key tech advancements have been made to minimize ozone generation in the oxidization process. On the regulation side, there are many standards and requirements to meet in terms of how much ozone a machine can safely produce. Our Healthway Compact unit is well within those limits; it is California Air Resources Board certified for ozone emission, and meets the UL Ozone Standard 867, as well as UL 2998–the gold standard today for Zero Ozone Emissions from Air Cleaners.
Q: The Delos Air Purifier has some great credentials, but at a higher end price point. Can you give us the lowdown on what we’re investing in?
A: Air purification technology has been around for decades, but there’s a huge range in terms of performance and efficacy. The most basic and cheapest technology can literally be just one fan blowing or sucking air through one filter. That’s it. That can be an air purifier, and it can be as cheap as $100.
With Delos Advanced Air, our partner, Healthway, invested in a unique filtration technology that is charged by an electronic voltage. It’s not just a piece of material physically blocking particulate matter from the air, it’s a type of filter that can charge, attach and capture more particles while at the same time deactivating viruses and pathogens due to the high voltage. The technology is very specific, and that’s why it’s more expensive.
And of course beyond the technology, clean air delivery rate (or CADR) is another key factor in price. The higher this number is, the more air can be filtered within a certain period of time. This means the unit can cover more space. In addition, industrial design, fan quality, overall manufacturing quality, and other aspects to ensure good user experience and low noise level need to be considered in the price.
Q: Why has the Delos air purification unit been such a great option for schools during the pandemic?
A: While the most obvious way to reduce the concentration of particles in the air is through ventilation – just dilute your air with a fresh influx from outdoors – in places like classrooms or other high-density places, this isn’t really enough or may not even be possible. Many existing ventilation systems have limited – or no – fresh air intake options, and are often less capable than car HVACs, especially in older buildings in NYC and other cities. Retrofitting or installing new ventilation systems would cost a lot of time and money, especially during the pandemic. So while increasing ventilation as an option would be very effective in theory, it has many practical challenges in reality.
Air quality has come into focus today because of Covid-19, but the impact of air quality on our health is a far longer story. Even after the pandemic passes, air quality remains a huge challenge for most schools. Kids are cramped, over long hours, into small spaces that often lack adequate ventilation, and the compromised air quality negatively affects their cognitive performance, development and learning. Harvard had put out a study associating CO2 and PM with diminished cognitive performance several years ago. And now of course more studies are coming out because of Covid.
In the end, the virus will pass. But the urgency of ensuring cleaner indoor air will not.