And the 17-year-old has the TED Talk to prove it.
Like many air travelers, 17-year old Raymond Wong was concerned about how germs spread in the confined space of an airplane cabin. Unlike most flyers, though, the high school student decided to do something about it.
Wong used fluid dynamics to create computational simulations of how the air moves on planes. After studying computer models, he found that the traditional airflow in a plane moves pathogens around the cabin.
This video demonstrates the trajectory of a sneeze in an airplane cabin with traditional airflow:
Before you get too nervous to step on your next flight, remember that these days almost every jetliner comes equipped with HEPA air filters that remove 99.97 percent of particles in the air, including bacteria and viruses. Still, some germs do get through the filters, which is where Wang’s invention comes in.
To combat the likelihood of encountering your neighbor’s pathogen on a plane, Wang invented a fin-like device that he predicts can "improve the availability of fresh air in the cabin by 190 percent and reduce the concentration of airborne germs by 55 times versus conventional designs."
This is done by creating "personalized breathing zones" for each passenger, bordered by virtual walls of air that keep germs away. Here’s a video showing off an improved design that keeps those cooties moving down the aisle and away from passengers:
Wang estimates that adding the device would cost $1,000 per airplane and could easily be installed overnight.
Understandably, the teen took first place and the $75,000 prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which is the world’s largest high school science competition. Now he has a TED Talk discussing his device.
However, while improved airflow can’t hurt, some doctors aren’t convinced that the device will actually curb infections because some diseases aren’t transmitted through the air, but rather by touching surfaces contaminated by the guy coughing in the seat next to you.
In any case, this advice for how to avoid getting sick on a plane is still well worth a read.