By: Kimiya Shokoohi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix

As the number of wildfires increases, the need for efficient air purification systems — especially in the Saskatchewan communities most affected — has become abundantly clear.

Earlier this year, when fire crews and elected officials were deciding whether or not to evacuate towns along the Lake Athabasca region in northwest Saskatchewan, indoor air quality was a glaring consideration was indoor air quality.

As the threat of hazardous smoke from nearby wildfires loomed over Fond Du Lac, a key factor was whether residents would have safe air to breath inside homes and community facilities.

Air scrubbers were flown up from Saskatoon to meet the mandate, and the practice of outfitting facilities with air purification systems became a regular occurrence for the Prince Albert Grand Council.

“Pretty much in every community we’ve acquired (air purifiers) and had them put in facilities,” PAGC program director Cliff Buettner said.

The PAGC started adding air purification systems to communities as far back as 2015, when about 13,000 people were forced out of northern Saskatchewan due to numerous wildfires.

Moving groups and providing adequate facilities is a complex undertaking. The more efficient response is ensuring facilities are upgraded and fire-proofed, with safety protocols upgraded and met, particularly in rural communities.

Two researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are looking specifically into modernizing how air flows through and inside buildings. Professors Jafar Soltan and Carey Simonson recently received about $500,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to work on projects to improve energy efficiency of air purification systems.

“Buildings consume a lot of energy, one the largest sectors of energy used globally,” said Simonson, who is a professor of mechanical engineering and the newly appointed interim dean of the College of Engineering.

“The work that we’re doing is trying to reduce energy consumption and look to heat and cool buildings that don’t really use as much of the fossil fuels.”

While Simonson’s work seeks to improve ventilation, heating and cooling within buildings by transporting fresh outdoor air, Soltan is researching how to efficiently clean air within a facility.

Since the onset of COVID-19, Soltan — who teaches chemical and biological engineering at the College of Engineering — has been focusing his research on removing airborne viruses. Prior to the pandemic, his research was specifically focused on removing chemical pollutants.

The core function of the work is to ensure the decarbonization of energy. The question of modernizing building ventilation and general safety codes is increasingly in question and changing.

“The need for building cooling is going to change and develop as we move through the next century,” Sameson said.

“We have to develop better and more efficient systems and then also work on alternative sources that are not so carbon dependent.”