Is Tofu the Answer to Our Smog Problem? This Scientist From Beijing Says It May Just Be

Beijingers are used to seeing soy used to produce all manner of foodstuffs – tofu, soy milk, edamame, protein supplements, soy sauce ... but soon we may be using this miracle bean to protect us from the city's notoriously bad air.

That's because researchers at Beijing's University of Science and Technology and Washington State University (WSU) have developed a soy-based filter that they say is capable of catching not only particulate matter, but also carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and other gaseous toxins (collectively known as volatile organic compounds or VOC's), that standard HEPA filers can't catch.

On January 12, WSU announced that its researchers had developed the filters, made primarily out of soy protein isolate and bacterial cellulose.

Professor Weihong (Katie) Zhong, the leader of the team and a native Beijinger, said the team's filter is all-natural, biodegradable, and inexpensive, which makes it not only superior in filtration effectiveness, but also in environmental friendliness. Current particulate matter filters often use synthetic materials, while those that filter gases tend to be charcoal-based.

The key is the 18 amino groups that soy contains which are able to absorb hazardous pollution molecules, Zhong's research says.

Zhong and her team have been at it for a year, and it hasn't been easy to get off the ground: she recently told the Moscow-Pullman Daily News that it was very hard to secure funding for the research. The US Department of Agriculture and, worse still, her employers at WSU, were reluctant to devote even the slimmest portion of their budgets to the soy filters project, prompting Zhong to use her summer salary to hire a team of students to assist with her research, who were aided by several, far more eager graduate students at the University of Science and Technology Beijing.

However, the team is gradually overcoming those setbacks, having not only filed patents for the soy filter but also lobbying WSU to assist with and speed up the commercialization of the product.

If and when Zhong's filters hit the market, we'll surely be keen to buy them up. We Beijingers are already obsessed with particulate matter, but the issue of VOCs receives a lot less attention: standard HEPA filters are unable to filter VOCs under 0.3 microns in diameter.

However, no word yet on whether the filter can block the putrid aroma that wafts from your local stinky tofu hawker.

More stories by this author here.
Twitter: @MulKyle
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Photos: WSU, Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Microshield


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