NASA Spinoff

Plants Clean Air and Water for Indoor Environments

Partnership

After serving over 30 years as a government scientist, Wolverton retired from civil service but continued his work in air and water quality by founding Wolverton Environmental Services Inc. The company, based just down the road from Stennis in Picayune, Mississippi, is an environmental consulting firm that gives customers access to Wolverton’s decades of cutting-edge bioremediation research.

Product Outcome

Wolverton published his findings about using plants to improve indoor air quality in dozens of technical papers while with the Space Agency and as a simple consumer-friendly book, “How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 Houseplants That Purify Your Home or Office.” In it, he explains, in easy-to-understand terms, how plants emit water vapor that creates a pumping action to pull contaminated air down around a plant’s roots, where it is then converted into food for the plant. He then goes on to explain which plants and varieties remove the most toxins, as well as to rate each plant for the level of maintenance it requires. The book has now been translated into 12 languages and has been on the shelves of bookstores for nearly 10 years. Wolverton has also published a companion book, “Growing Clean Water: Nature’s Solution to Water Pollution,” which explains how plants can clean waste water.

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Wolverton Environmental Services Inc. designed this sustainable ecosystem to show how a building’s circulation system and a rooftop garden could work in tandem to clean indoor air.
Another one of Wolverton’s discoveries is that the more air that is allowed to circulate through the roots of the plants, the more effective they are at cleaning polluted air. To take advantage of this science, Wolverton has teamed with the Japanese company, Actree Corporation, to develop what the Japanese firm is marketing as the EcoPlanter. Using high-efficiency carbon filters and a root-level circulation system, the pot allows the plant to remove approximately 200 times more VOCs than a single traditionally-potted plant can remove.

The company has recently begun to assess the ability of the EcoPlanter to remove formaldehyde from the many travel trailers furnished by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to victims of Hurricane Katrina. The interiors of the trailers make heavy use of particleboard, which off-gasses formaldehyde. Many of the trailers have been found to exceed the recommended levels of formaldehyde for human safety. Initial tests of the EcoPlanter have been very encouraging, but other testing is still needed.

Research has also suggested that plants play a psychological role in welfare, and that people actually recover from illness faster in the presence of plants. Wolverton’s company is working with another Japanese company, Takenaka Garden Afforestation Inc., of Tokyo, to design ecology gardens. These are carefully designed gardens that help remove the toxins from the air in hospitals, as well as provide the healing presence of the foliage.

On the home front, in a partnership with Syracuse University, Wolverton Environmental is engineering systems consisting of modular wicking filters tied into duct work and water supplies, essentially tying plant-based filters into heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. This whole-building approach has recently been licensed by Wolverton to Phytofilter Technologies Inc., of Saratoga Springs, New York, which is currently constructing a prototype of a system that is intended to clean the water and air circulation systems of entire buildings using the natural abilities of plants. The design includes units that are built into existing HVAC units. The plants can be placed throughout buildings, in atriums, or in roof gardens and then hooked into the building’s HVAC units through forced-air filters.

Wolverton Environmental is also in talks with designers of the new Stennis Visitor’s Center, who are interested in using its designs for indoor air-quality filters.