A*Star tech may set stage for return of large-scale shows

Clip-on mask fan, invisible ionised air curtain among creations developed after SCO tie-up

New technology, such as clip-on mask fans and an invisible ionised air curtain between performers and audiences, could pave the way for the return of large-scale performances.

These are among technologies utilised by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) to control the spread of Covid-19 in an enclosed environment - such as a concert hall - following a six-month collaboration with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO).

Zero2.5 invented the plant-based ioniser technology and the IMRE team led by Prof Loh were the first to study its use in a performance setting.

The creation of the SnapAir clip-on mask fan was the result of feedback given by conductors, who are not allowed to remove their masks during performances. They reported having to often pause to catch their breath as they addressed the audience.

The 45g device is attached, via a magnetic strip, to the outside of the mask and increases the intake of air for the user. The air is filtered by the mask as it is drawn in.

Musicians will benefit as well, said Mr Terence Ho, executive director of SCO. "Imagine playing for two hours; having something that increases the players' comfort means they can focus and perform better."

And curtain call takes on a new meaning with the use of ionising devices attached to ornamental plants to create an "ionising curtain" - an invisible barrier - between the musicians and the audience. Such an ionising curtain is "a world's first for an orchestra", said Mr Ho.

The ionising device, which is partially inserted into the soil, induces a negative charge in air particles around the plant.

By charging particles around the plant, the ionisers pull positively charged aerosols, droplets, and particulate matter towards the leaves of the plant.

As some plants have the ability to cleanse the air around them, the ioniser-plant combination can help to reduce the amount of viral particles in the air.

Spearheading the team from A*Star's Institute of Materials Research and Engineering is Professor Loh Xian Jun, who said the team had to first understand the movement of aerosols and droplets in the SCO Concert Hall.

This was done using computer algorithms to map out the airflow, with help from A*Star's Institute of High Performance Computing.

Using ultra high-speed cameras, the researchers were able to visualise the production of droplets from wind instruments such as the Chinese flute.

For real-world tests, they used an aerosol generator which could simulate a person coughing or sneezing. "Dr Kauffman", as the device is affectionately called by the team, can deliver an aerosol and droplet output of 1,000 coughs at once.

Beyond the confines of the concert hall, Prof Loh's team also had to deal with spaces where audience members congregate.

Basing their design on studies that showed the high efficacy of ultraviolet-C (UVC) light in killing the Sars-CoV-2 virus which causes Covid-19, they designed a filterless high-volume air purifier.

The device, HiTAC, is able to clean the air in large areas by charging aerosols as they are drawn in. These aerosols are attracted to plates holding an opposite charge and the plates are disinfected using UVC light.

These new ways to limit the spread of Covid-19 complement existing safe management measures, said Mr Ho.

He added: "We're trying to improve safety for musicians as well as audience members and, hopefully, the added peace of mind can bring about a better experience for everyone.

"We're holding two shows at the start of October. Hopefully, we get to showcase these technologies."

Correction note: An earlier version of this story said A*Star had developed the technology used inside the concert hall. This is inaccurate. The technology and its application, in particular that of the plant ioniser and air curtain, were invented by Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory Ltd and developed and commercialised by Zero2.5.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2021, with the headline 'A*Star tech may set stage for return of large-scale shows'. Subscribe