Before Covid-19, we wouldn’t have thought twice about the air we were breathing when spending an hour or more in a meeting room with a group of colleagues. But now, alongside mask wearing and vigorous hand-washing, we are far more aware of our actions and the ways in which this virus is transmitted.
Savvas Gkantonas is a fourth year PhD Engineering student at Churchill College, and like many of our Members, he has found his everyday focus shifted to tackle the pandemic. Whilst he was previously looking at particulate matter emissions from engines, when he saw the news saying that transmission of Covid-19 by aerosols wasn’t likely, he knew that the research was showing the opposite and felt compelled to start working on the project.
In order to safely protect their staff, businesses need to understand the risk their premises pose when it comes to spreading Covid-19. Using their understanding of how air flow transports particles, Savvas and his co-author of the original paper, Dr Pedro de Oliveira, developed Airborne.cam, a free-to-use website which looks at how Covid-19 spreads in indoor spaces through aerosols. Their research is startling, and shows that social distancing measures alone do not provide adequate protection from the virus in particular situations. Using mathematical models, the research showed that if two people are not wearing masks in a poorly ventilated room, prolonged talking is far more likely to spread the virus than a cough, due to the size of the droplets exhaled. Time is also key, looking at the risk of infection during, say, a 30 minute meeting compared to an hour. The key results have then been consolidated into the website, where more parameters can be changed such as size, occupancy, and ventilation in a room, and whether masks are being worn.
Airborne.cam has since reached 20,000 users in a single day, which shows just how important this research is to businesses that will want to open their offices again in the future. The website is designed to be user friendly and allow individuals to play with the problem. It is already being used across Cambridge University, including here at Churchill College. Our Head of Estates, Tom Boden said ‘Airborne.cam is a sophisticated but user friendly tool that allows us to plan how we safely use our buildings and spaces. It is easy to change different variants such as number of occupants or ventilation to better understand the risks associated with the spread of the virus and take appropriate mitigatory measures.’
So what next for Airborne.cam? The team want to ensure that it remains free for users, so they are hoping to receive more support in addition to a donation already made by the College in order to develop the site further and to provide educational resources such as instructional videos for their users. Plus there is no doubt that this system will have an application beyond that of Covid-19. Making sure users have access to fresh air has always been important, and Airborne.cam will hopefully become an essential tool for all businesses using risk assessments to ensure that their buildings minimise the risk of all airborne infections to their users.