The device, known as the SXC ESP, was found to prevent respiratory and viral infections and inhalation-induced allergic reactions more efficiently than existing filter-based systems.
"Traditional air cleaners can trap viruses or other toxic particles in the filter, where they linger and grow, said Pratim Biswas, professor and head energy, environmental and chemical engineering at the Washington University, who led the research.
"Because many people in developed countries spend the majority of time indoors, properly maintaining indoor air quality is an absolute necessity to protect public health," added Biswas, the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology reports.
Ultimately, this technology could be incorporated into stand-alone air cleaners or scaled for use in aircraft cabins, offices and residential systems.
It also could be used to clean up a diesel engine or power plant exhaust, according to a Washington statement.
Researchers exposed mice with compromised immune systems to the downstream air stream passing through the unit that contacted infectious viruses, allergens, anthrax, smallpox and other particles in the air.
The sensitive mice survived, indicating that the SXC ESP was very effective in removing these biological agents from the air.
Michael Gidding, a master's in energy, environmental and chemical engineering and Daniel Garcia, chemical engineering graduate, have teamed up to scale up this technology for commercial use.
Their startup, Aerosol Control Technologies (ACT), is based on the patented process Biswas developed.
There are many applications for the technology in the coal industry, Gidding says, from dust control and safety at the mine to flue-gas treatment at the power plant.