February 26, 2012, Updated September 12, 2012

Israel’s AirBase Systems uses advanced nanotechnology to develop the lowest-cost air pollution monitor and alert on the market.

Photo by Moshe Shai/Flash90
Traffic on busy urban highways is one of the major causes of air pollution worldwide.

If you live in an urban, traffic-choked area, you are a prime potential customer for an Israeli company’s novel, low-cost device that gives real-time information on air quality wherever you are.

Air pollution is the cause of approximately two million premature deaths worldwide per year, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, one in 10 children suffers from asthma, which is the leading reason for absence from school and work. Aside from asthma and other chronic lung diseases, pollution is also a known cause of cancer and clogged arteries leading to heart disease and strokes.

Existing systems designed to monitor the major offenders — cars and buses, power plants, factories, airports — cost between $50,000 and $100,000 and require intensive, and therefore costly, maintenance. Only government agencies and large industries can afford them. What’s more, lag time in reporting and difficulty in understanding reports are major complaints.

Irad Kuhnreich was determined to develop a low-cost, sophisticated alternative, and that’s what his AirBase Systems is all about.

“This venture is very personal for me,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “I had asthma as a child. My father was head of the emergency room at Rothschild Hospital in Haifa. When I was 15, we started to correlate events with smelly days in the bus station. I love the city, and part of my passion is that it should be the center of knowledge about air pollution.”

As the father of two small children who also suffer from asthma, Kuhnreich felt the need for a reliable, easy-to-use product. “My vision is to have tens of thousands of air-quality monitors all over the world,” he says.

Nanotechnology to the rescue

A graduate of Haifa’s Technion Institute of Technology, Kuhnreich spent many years at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems before deciding to tackle the air pollution scourge.

“Fortunately, the first fruits of nanotechnology research have become mature and ready for commercial application,” he relates.

Nanotechology has made a whole new breed of tiny sensors possible. “Our sensors use a minimal amount of material. They are very small and very sensitive,” said AirBase’s founder, 37, who conceived the entire concept.

Teaming up with a high school friend, Liad Ortar – a well-known environmental entrepreneur who had served as CEO of Greenpeace Israel — and army buddy Raviv Yatom, a software whiz, Kuhnreich spearheaded R&D. “We did a huge feasibility study in 2009 even before founding the company.”

Established in 2010 with initial funding from the Chief Scientist of Israel, AirBase Systems came up with a product that promises to be the lowest-cost air pollution monitor and alert on the market.

The size of two iPhones, the 14-inch (35-millimeter) monitor is composed of a solid-state sensor head augmented with nanotechnology and integrated into a sleek-looking proprietary device that collects the data and transmits it via Wi-Fi to the website. It’s then analyzed in the cloud.

“We use advanced pattern matching and patented algorithms to identify common pollution patterns and rate the threat,” says Kuhnreich. The system creates graphically interesting and useable reports instantly. And there is no maintenance. “We can fix any problem remotely,” he adds.

How to use the information

The device doesn’t just report on conditions but also automatically suggests simple, smart ways to reduce exposure to air pollution.

“If you are in a car, you will get instructions to close windows. At home, check the image of a window on your computer screen. It will be open or closed depending on air quality.”

Since the system is wireless, you can even get the reports and alerts on your mobile phone or iPad, if you have a dedicated app. The system can also be programmed to alert the police or fire department.

“We use a whole bundle of technologies. It is all one holistic system,” says Kuhnreich.

AirBase Systems has already completed a successful pilot project in Haifa. “We clearly saw the difference in neighborhoods, and could track the pollution event.”

The company is working with the Air Quality Testing Facility in the Environmental Protection Ministry to validate its system’s effectiveness in comparison to an expensive, high-end legacy system. The Technion is also cooperating on third-party validation.

Coming soon

Early this year, AirBase will deploy the system in one of Israel’s major cities and in Berlin following its grand introduction at the March Eco-Summit Conference in the German city.

It was already featured at the Consumer Electronic Conference in Las Vegas in January. AirBase plans to open a US office in June to be headed by chief scientist and air quality expert Daniel Pedersen, who earned his doctorate at MIT.

“I am very excited to be part of this company,” says Pedersen. “We have groundbreaking technology, which was not available before. The service can provide a total picture of air quality in real time. And, we can customize the system for particular customers.”

Pederson points out that there is a strong linear link between air pollution and hospitalization, and it’s not just from visible brown haze. VOCs (volatile organic compounds), soot and other particles emitted from combustion (such as bonfires) are also insidious because they get right through filters.

“A real value [of our product] is that you can attribute air pollution to a specific source, and see the level of pollution. It becomes affordable to measure pollution. The manufacturer will know and the public will know. You can only manage what you monitor,” he says.

Kuhnreich reports “a huge demand from all over the world for a low-cost air quality monitor and alert system. Our big challenge will be to scale up.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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