Ionic Air Purifier Technologies – Genius or Fraud?


Ionic air purifiers hold the promise of clean air, purified of all known harmful contaminants that threaten our health. These harmful contaminants are not visible to our naked eyes. The weapons against such are very likely to be invisible to our eyes as well. Intuitively, the logic appeals to me. But these days, finding a simple and quick solution is rare. Googling the subject unearths a ton of controversy. Obviously, I must resist the urge to go by intuition and grab the first ionic air purifier that I lay hands on. 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 examined to the fullest extent that our resources permit. This is even more critical when the key reactive agent is unseen to the human eye. My investigation of ionic air purifier technologies falls within this realm, as the reactive agents are ions that are invisible to our eyes.

In this article, I am laying out the roadmap as I look into the 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 current key trend appears to be the creation of a potent invisible defence shield against airborne molecular contaminants that threaten our well-being. The prime threat being closely monitored by scientists all over the world 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. Under passive technology modes, reactive agents are contained in the air purifier whilst impure air is drawn in for cleansing before being pushed back to the environment. In active mode, the reactive agents are pushed into the environment with the impure air. Savvy marketeers often seek to cover all the bases by combining both passive and active modes in many 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. They have been named as plasmacluster ions by Sharp Corporation, the Japanese corporate powerhouse that invented them.

Plasmaclusters of positive and negative ions encircle and latch onto harmful bacteria and viruses in a deadly grip. When clumping occurs, hydroxyl is produced. Commonly known as nature’s detergent, hydroxyl is a powerful reactive species that destroys airborne particulates by removing hydrogen molecules from their organic structures. 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. Diametrically, believers of the negative ions technology take the view that negative ions dominate the space in natural habitats and that positive ions are actually harmful. As I progress with my research, I shall be looking for independent scientific studies that support either of these two opposing views.

Ion Generator – Negative Ions

The traditional ionic air purifier produces only negative ions. This technology appears to have the main market share currently but is facing a serious challenge from Sharp’s plasmacluster positive and negative ions technology.

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. These impurities are simply removed by vacuuming. 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.

It seems that there are several ways to produce negative ions. This is important because different methods produce different by-products, some of which may be harmful. These methods include:

(1) Water method – this employs what is known as the waterfall or Lenard Effect. Onto an electrically-charged metal plate, water droplets are splashed. This splits the water droplets, a process in which large numbers of negative ions are produced. 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. The simple application of a high voltage pulse to the electrode results in millions of negatively-charged electrons being produced. This method does not result in ozone being generated. This is attributed to a “smaller” energy pulse being applied.

(3) Corona discharge method – this is based on a dual electrode model, a sharp metal electrode and a flat electrode. High voltage is applied between the electrodes. The movement of electrons between the electrodes ionises the air in that same space. An inherent weakness of this method is 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. infectious biological compounds (e.g. pathogenic bacteria and viruses) or non-infectious and non-contagious (e.g. non-pathogenic bacteria, molds, cell debris)

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

Detractors of POC technology are wary of the inability of hydroxyl to distinguish between the organic structures of molecular contaminants and that of our nose membrane, lung tissue and eye cornea.

Electrostatic Filter

This technology appears to have originated in heavy industries which produced abundant pollutants. Typically, an electrostatic filter is made of a porous dielectric material that is positioned between two electrodes. A dielectric material does not conduct electricity while metallic electrodes are good conductors that transmit or receive electricity.

Contaminated air is drawn into the electrostatic puriifer and made to pass over the dielectric material which acts like a sieve. The electrostatic field between the electrodes causes airborne particulates i.e.smoke contaminants, dust, etc, to stick to the dielectric surface. Purified air emerges from the other end of the purifier.

Very often, an ion source is inserted before the electrostatic filter to charge the airborne particulates. The impurities, now carrying an electrical charge, stick more effectively to the dielectric material.

Critics of this technology point to the production of harmful ozone in the ionisation process.

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. I have barely skimmed the surface of the safety issues of each technology. I have also not studied in detail the claims of each technology. I urge you not to rush out to get the latest air purifier for your homes, offices, factories, schools etc. Do your homework and check back here for updates as I continue to find the ideal ionic air purifier.

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