Ionic air purifiers hold the promise of clean air, purified of all known harmful contaminants that threaten our health. The harmful impurities in the air are not visible to our naked eye. Invisible ions battling invisible contaminants appears to make perfect sense. The intuitive logic draws me. Sadly, google has no quick answer to meet my simple expectation. Instead, controversy abounds. Even though I am tempted to quickly get an ionic air purifier to clean the air I breathe, it is clear that more time and effort is needed. Safety, more than effectiveness, must be given higher weightage in the selection of an ionic air purifier.

The recent China melamine saga that killed infants also serves as a reminder to us that in buying into any technology or any product, all claims by manufacturers and distributors must be screened to the fullest extent that our resources permit. Where the reactive agent is invisible, it becomes even more critical to focus on it. My investigation of ionic air purifier technologies falls within this realm, as the reactive agents are ions that are invisible to our eyes.

This article is an overview of existing ionic air purifier technologies in the global marketplace. As laypersons, I believe we have to adopt a back-to-basics approach to try and understand the technologies. The creation of a powerful invisible defence shield against airborne molecular contaminants is increasingly taking centrestage. The dominant global health threat under the scrutiny of scientists is the avian flu virus.

Types of Ionic Air Purifier Technologies

Broadly speaking, air purification technologies can be deployed in either passive or active modes. Passive typically means that impure air is drawn into the air purifier for the reactive agents to work on before re-emerging as cleaned air into the environment. Active generally means dispersive processes by which the impure air is penetrated and purified by the reactive agents. Combinations of both passive and active modes are often found in many types of ionic air purifiers.

In the global market today, ionic air purifier technologies include the following categories:

(A) Ion generator – positive and negative ions
(B) Ion generator – negative ions only
(C) Photocatalytic Oxidation (POC)
(D) Electrostatic filter
(E) Combos

Ion Generator – Positive and Negative Ions

This combination of positive and negative ions appears to show the most promise for the future of ionic air purifier technology. Developed by Japanese ingenuity, Sharp Corporation to be exact, they are known as plasmacluster ions.

Plasmaclusters of positive and negative ions encircle and latch onto harmful bacteria and viruses in a deadly grip. When clumping occurs, hydroxyl is produced. Hydroxyl, also known as nature’s detergent, is a powerful reactive species that destroys airborne particulates by plucking out hydrogen molecules from their organic structure. This chemical reaction generates harmless by-products, the main of which is water.

This technology uses a differential ion generator, comprising a positive and a negative ion generator which can be powered in alternate cycles to control the type of ions generated.

Advocates of the positive and negative ions combination claim that a balance of both these ion types is to be found in places like waterfalls and pristine forests, i.e. this is the actual state in nature. In contrast, proponents of negative ions technology insist that negative ions fill natural habitats and that the presence of positive ions is harmful. Thus far, I have not found any independent scientific studies to support the opposing claims of the two technologies.

Ion Generator – Negative Ions

The traditional ionic air purifier produces only negative ions. Apparently, negative ions technology dominates the ionic air purifier market at the moment but Sharp’s plamascluster technology is increasingly proving to be a serious alternative.

It is claimed that nearly all harmful airborne particulates like dust, smoke and bacteria etc have a positive charge. Negative ions from the air purifier attach themselves to these particulates until they get weighed down and fall to the ground. Thereafter, simple vacuuming removes these impurities. Detractors of negative ion technology believe that the “overweight” particulates on the ground are not destroyed and that the mere act of walking on them re-contaminates the air.   

Apparently, there are a number of ways to produce negative ions. It is crucial to know the various methods as each may have different by-products, some of which are harmful. These methods include:

(1) Water method – this employs what is known as the waterfall or Lenard Effect. Water droplets are splashed onto a metal plate where a small electric charge is applied. The charge splits the water droplets resulting in the production of a large number of negative ions. No harmful by-products result from using the water method to produce ions.

(2) Electron radiation method – this is based on a single negative discharge electrode needle. Negatively-charged electrons are produced by the millions when a high voltage pulse is applied to the electrode. This method does not result in ozone being produced. This is due to the application of a “smaller” energy pulse.

(3) Corona discharge method – this is based on a dual electrode model, a sharp metal electrode and a flat electrode. An extremely high voltage is then applied to the two electrodes. The movement of electrons between the electrodes ionises the air in that same space. This method has been criticised for the production of harmful by-products like ozone and nitride oxide.

Photocatalytic Oxidation (POC)

This technology is commonly applied in a passive mode. It is also based on the powerful reactive agent hydroxyl which purifies impure air that is pulled through the air purifier.

Germicidal ultraviolet (UV) light is commonly shone on a catalyst (usually titanium oxide) to produce hydroxyl, oxygen and peroxide, all of which are potent oxidising agents that are very effective at destroying the organic structure of micro-organisms and gaseous volatile organic compounds.

The key pillar of POC technology is its comprehensive coverage.  Proponents of this technology claim that POC inactivates ALL categories of indoor pollution, including:

(1) airborne particulates i.e. dust, pet dander, plant pollen, sea salts, tobacco smoke, industrial and car pollution, etc

(2) bioaerosols i.e. biological compounds that may be infectious (e.g. pathogenic bacteria and viruses) or non-contagious and non-infectious (e.g. non-pathogenic bacteria, molds, cell debris)

(3) volatile organic compounds (VOCs) i.e. gaseous odours and chemicals – toluene, chloroform, hexane, ethanol, formaldehyde, ethylene etc, all common emissions from everyday products of our modern home.

POC technology has been criticised for relying on hydroxyl which are believed to attack with equal tenacity the organic structures that make up molecular contaminants and our lung tissue, nose membranes and eye cornea.

Electrostatic Filter

This technology appears to have originated in heavy industries which produced abundant pollutants. The typical arrangement in an electrostatic filter ionic air purifier comprises a porous dielectric material sandwiched between two electrodes. A dielectric material does not conduct electricity while metallic electrodes are good conductors that transmit or receive electricity.

Impure air is drawn into the electrostatic purifier so that it passes over the dielectric material. The electrostatic field created between the electrodes causes airborne particulates i.e.dust, smoke contaminants, to stick to the surface of the dielectric. Purified air is pushed out of the purifier and re-circulated.

Very often, an ion source is inserted before the electrostatic filter to charge the airborne particulates. Charging the impurities make them adhere more effectively to the dielectric material.

Criticism of electrostatic filter technology focuses on ozone as a by-product, commonly assumed to be produced in all ionisation processes.

Combo Ionic Air Purifiers

To cater to the various adherents and critics of the diverse technologies, combos incorporate all or some of the above types of technologies. Combos may include:

(1) adsorptive materials such as activated carbon or oxygenated charcoal (known for its extremely porous large surface area) are added to POC technology to enhance the removal of VOCs;

(2) oxidizing catalysts like titanium oxide are coated on various components of all types of   air purifiers to enhance VOC elimination;

(3) reducing catalysts such as manganese dioxide are coated near the exit outlets of many air purifiers to reduce reactive species like ozone and nitric oxide which may be harmful;

(4) generating ions by differing methods such as using microwave, UV light, radio frequency waves, and direct current;

(5) tweaking the specifications of any ionic air purifier technology so as to attain the well-known HEPA status without actually using HEPA filters.

Obviously, the process of selecting the most efficient and effective ionic air purifier involves analysing a deluge of information. The safety issues of each technology will need much more investigation. I have also not examined in greater depth the claims of each technology. So before you put your money down for any air purifier in your homes, offices, schools, etc, check back here for updates as I continue my quest for the ideal ionic air purifier.

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