- Nine of our research projects carried out with the participation of the European Funds involve testing innovative technologies and introducing them to the market. Although these will be prototype solutions, they will be designed with extensive applications in mind. And when they are introduced en masse, they will change, among other things, the way we heat buildings, where we get electricity from and what we do with sewage and agricultural waste. All this in order to use valuable energy resources in accordance with the European Green Deal, focus on the circular economy, take care of the climate and improve our living conditions - Wojciech Racięcki, Director of the Department for the Development of Innovative Programme Management Methods, NCBR

Is it possible to improve our health and have a cleaner environment and, at the same time, support development of Polish technologies? NCBR argues that it is. In cooperation with many experts and representatives of various industries, the Center is already preparing solutions supposed to make key sectors of the Polish economy greener.

Undoubtedly, these conditions are adversely affected by poor air quality and environmental pollution, among other things. However, Smog flying in the air, chemicals entering the water or greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere cannot be an everyday reality to which you just have to get used to. Destroying the health of the planet and degrading the environment in the end means destroying the health of ourselves.

NCBR experts are aware of this. This is why they have decided to act.

No more sick building syndrome

Changes in construction can bring the greatest benefits. The NCBR draws attention to both the need to reduce the demand for heat and to the transition to low-emission sources of thermal energy. Therefore, it is necessary, among other things, to thermo-modernize buildings, introduce intelligent heat management systems and eliminate old furnaces in which coal and wood are burned, and even garbage.

Although adults and children spend up to several hours a day in confined spaces, we breathe air of very poor quality in them. This is due to the so-called “low emission”, i.e. all kinds of harmful dusts, pollutants and gases, the main source of which is the household and the municipal sector.

“According to research, the concentration of CO2 in Polish schools is exceeded by up to three times. This causes a change in the body’s work and makes children unable to maximize their potential,” explains Dr. Tomasz Rożek, promoter of science and creator of the “Science. I like it.” social media channel, which in eight short films presents the NCBR’s activities in the light of the strategy of the European Green Deal.

Problems that may arise include problems with staying focused, headaches and dry throat and eyes. The phenomenon is so common and well studied that it has even gained its name: “sick building syndrome”.

The NCBR comes with the solution: the project known as “The Ventilation for Schools and Homes”. As a result of the work that has been already undertaken, prototype mechanical ventilation installations will be designed, which can be used both for entire buildings and for selected classrooms or specific apartments. This ventilation will allow, among other things, to significantly reduce the concentration of CO2.

“When 25-30 children sit in a classroom, the CO2 concentration gets higher than 3,000 ppm, sometimes even 5,000 ppm. If a building’s heat insulation has been upgraded and windows have been replaced with air-tighter ones, the inflow of fresh air is even more difficult. The use of forced ventilation will reduce CO2 concentration to less than 1,000 ppm. This is the upper limit accepted by all the most important health organizations, including the WHO,” explained Dr. Mariusz Skwarczyński from NCBR, head of “The Ventilation for Schools and Homes” project.

Protection against dust and viruses

But of course, other pollutants are also a problem, including the PM10 and PM2.5 airborne particles. They enter our bodies with the air we breathe. They are the cause of respiratory diseases, among others. Lung diseases and breathing problems including asthma are becoming increasingly common in children. An additional challenge for schools is the secondary air pollution. It occurs when, for example, children raise dust lying on the floor while playing during a break or when dust is shaken from their clothes in the locker room.

Air purifiers can partially solve the problem but they have a limited coverage. A properly functioning system of mechanical ventilation and air distribution in the room can give measurable effects for the whole building. “The simplest ventilation systems fail to provide for dust filtration. While drafting criteria of our project we assumed that the target level of pollutants will not be allowed to exceed the good air quality threshold,” explained Mariusz Skwarczyński.

Our prototype ventilation will also remove microbial contaminants: viruses, bacteria and fungi.

“If one child comes to class with a cold and sneezes or coughs, there may be a domino effect. Within a few days many other students will get sick, from whom, in turn, their parents may become infected. Our systems are supposed to counteract this transmission,” said Mariusz Skwarczyński. “On the one hand, the aforementioned distribution system will help by ensuring even and constant exchange of air. On the other hand, the filters will remove dust particles, bacteria, viruses and fungi from the air.”

The ventilation systems developed as part of the NCBR’s project will also adjust the temperature based on real requirements. And so, if there are 20-30 children in the class, the system will slow down because the students will be the source of heat. This is how it will be possible to maintain the optimum temperature both in schools and in apartments for health and comfort of life in a very easy way.

“Based on an energy-efficient system, we can therefore ensure high-performance recovery of heat and cold, good air filtration, effective removal of microbiological hazards, and also reduce the CO2 concentrations to acceptable values,” said Dr. Mariusz Skwarczyński about the advantages of the innovative approach to ventilation

A cure for smog

Innovations in the construction industry are also necessary to get rid of problems existing outdoors. On the national scale, the municipal and household sectors are the main source of air pollution, including the PM2.5 and PM10 particles and the carcinogenic benzo(a)pyrene. Their concentrations in winter very often exceed the accepted limit by up to several hundred percent.

According to the data of the National Center for Emission Balancing and Management (KOBiZE), combustion of fuels in households in 2019 accounted for 49% of the PM2.5 emission, 41% of the PM10 emission and 89% of the emission of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), including benzo(a)pyrene.

“We have 5.5 million single-family homes, more than half of which are heated with coal and wood. For the most part, furnaces installed in homes do not meet any ecological or emission standards. Until we solve the problem related to heating houses, there is no reason to hope for good air quality,” said Andrzej Guła, co-founder of the Polish Smog Alert and member of the NCBR’s committee monitoring the European Green Deal’s projects.

This problem has been addressed by several projects implemented by the NCBR with support from the European Funds (under the “Smart Growth” Operational Program). Electrification of heating, heat pumps or the building of home heat and energy storage facilities are very important elements of the puzzle, from which the image smog-free Poland is to be composed. All these projects share the same goal: to provide people with heat and electricity without harming the environment and ourselves.

“The Energy- and Process-efficient Construction” project will allow for development of model buildings responding to these challenges to the greatest extent. As explained by Piotr Kopacz, project manager from the NCBR, HEPA filters will be installed in prefabricated buildings, which will improve air quality, and heat will be provided without the need to burn anything. The benefits will be felt not only by tenants, who will not have to bother with coal supply, for example, but also by neighbors who will not have to inhale smoke. In addition, thanks to intelligent sensors, buildings will provide adequate humidity and temperature. “Another benefit issue is low bills or even their absence. This is a very important aspect for users because they can enjoy peace of mind. Simply, the price for electricity or heating will not be something they will have to worry about,” explained Piotr Kopacz.

Use rainwater to the last drop

In the context of health and buildings, it is important to consider all resources, not just those providing heat and electricity. For example, proper management of water resources is very important.

“A few years ago news broke out that Skierniewice ran out of water. The same can happen in other places. Ground waters are becoming depleted and this scarcity will affect us more often because storm water cannot infiltrate the ground and quickly flows down into rivers. Meanwhile, 70% of water supplies to municipalities comes from the ground and only 30% from surface waters,” pointed out Michał Oleszko from the NCBR, manager of the “Home Retention Technologies” project.

This project was started up specifically to protect ground water resources. Various technologies designed by project contractors aim to supply households mostly with rainwater (up to 95%). Rainwater will be used for almost all purposes: bathing, washing and flushing the toilet. There are even solutions that could make this water potable. In order to be able to use rainwater in so many ways, the target system will include a backyard sewage treatment plant. It will be equipped with UV lamps to eradicate microorganisms in the water tank and will have a water filtration and treatment system.

The NCBR’s expert also notes that treated effluent from the building can be used to water a green wall, green roof and all greenery around us, not only lawns. And the presence of plants is something that also supports our health. “Studies show that vertical gardens or green terraces reduce noise levels and help to alleviate the problem of urban heat islands. Also, such vegetation catches dust very efficiently, contributing to air quality improvement,” emphasized Michał Oleszko who reminded that as many as 92% of Warsaw residents would like to live in a greener environment.

The Sewage Treatment Plant of the Future, that is…

Speaking of water purification, we cannot forget about another NCBR’s project extremely important for health and the environment: “The Sewage Treatment Plant of the Future”.

“Non-usable untreated sewage sludge is a heavy burden on the environment,” pointed out Dr. Tomasz Rożek from the “Science. I like it.” social media channel. They contain many micropollutants, such as pharmaceuticals (antibiotics, hormones, etc.) and pesticides. Some chemicals, after entering rivers, end up in the Baltic Sea and contribute to cyanobacterial blooms. They also cause other changes in the environment, such as the birth of males only. The sewage treatment plant developed as part of the project will remove several types of problematic micropollutants. They were selected in cooperation with scientists from the Gdańsk University of Technology, based mainly on the criterion of prevalence.

“Activated sludge of conventional treatment plants can retain 30% of pollutants, so the remaining 70% gets into rivers together with treated sewage. Studies show that persistent exposure to pharmaceuticals leads to fish infertility. It happened that hermaphroditic specimens were born due to long-term exposure of various fish species to large amounts of hormones. If such water ends up in rivers, then we, humans, are also exposed to it. Further, the phenomenon of drug resistance is observed increasingly often: bacteria and viruses have a lot of contact with drugs in their natural environments, which makes them resistant,” explained Marek Świdowicz from the NCBR, manager of “The Sewage Treatment Plant of the Future” project.

“The Sewage Treatment Plant of the Future” will reduce pollution by more than 90% and the amount of pharmaceuticals by at least half (although the most promising contractors declare a level of about 90%). Sewage will also become a source of valuable substances thanks to the very effective recovery of nutrients. For example, phosphorus and nitrogen compounds recovered from it can be used to produce fertilizers and improve soil, some recovered material could be built into roads or squares while recovered graywater would serve industrial or domestic purposes.

The project assumes that at least half of the treated water will not be discharged into watercourses but will be reused. “These are huge volumes. Bearing in mind the increasingly longer and more frequent periods of drought, we must save potable water in all possible ways. Mainly because of the threat that, in a few decades, our grandchildren may face even more severe problem of water scarcity. So, if you can use graywater from a sewage treatment plant to water urban greeneries, or rinse roads, it is worth doing it,” emphasized Marek Świdowicz.

An existing treatment plant will be upgraded for the purposes the NCBR’s project. The prototype odor emission-free plant will be sized to collect sewage from 20,000 inhabitants. This design capacity is not random: treatment plants of this type are the least technologically advanced and, therefore, have the greatest potential for improvement. However, the newly developed technology, like others prepared with support from the European Funds under the “Smart Growth” Program, will be scalable. This means that implementing it in a larger treatment plant will not be a problem.

The Innovative Biogas Plant

Among the projects expected to benefit the natural environment, there is also “The Innovative Biogas Plant”. “Today, biomass is often burned, which turns valuable nutrients into dust. In addition, the combustion produces smog and air pollution and destroys biodiversity. On the other hand, biogas plants do not contribute to pollution and, what is very important, produce natural fertilizers. Thanks to this, the biogene cycle gets closed, which is the main assumption of the circular economy,” said Tomasz Rożek, physicist, author of the “Science. I like it.” social media channel.

Natural fertilizers will be produced from the digestate, i.e. material devoid of parasites, pathogens, active weed seeds, etc. “The digestate is safe for fertilizing fields. It does not contain micropollutants such as antibiotics. In addition, the fermented mass enriches the soil organically. Currently, grounds in Poland tend to turn into steppes, and such treatments improve the structure of soils. Humus recovers and plants grow better,” said Miłosz Krzymiński, project manager from the NCBR, about the advantages of “The Innovative Biogas Plant” project.

A big advantage of the plant will be the absence of odors, which will significantly alleviate this anthropogenic nuisance. As the name of the facility suggests, its key product will be biomethane which can be used, for example, as fuel for agricultural machines instead of fossil fuels. There are more possible applications. “After the introduction of biomethane into the grid, you will not need to use coal or wood to heat homes. This will reduce smog and have a positive effect on our health,” added Miłosz Krzymiński.

Visit https://www.gov.pl/web/ncbr/green-deal to learn more about the 9 research projects of the NCBR being implemented as part of the European Green Deal strategy.

Do you want to know more? Watch the 8 short videos about the NCBR’s projects under the Green Deal strategy: Zielone technologie? To lubię! - Narodowe Centrum Badań i Rozwoju - Portal Gov.pl (www.gov.pl)

Projects entitled “The Energy- and Process-efficient Construction”, “The Innovative Biogas Plant”, “The Sewage Treatment Plant of the Future”, “The Electricity Storage”, “The Heat and Cold Storage”, “Home Retention Technologies” and “The Ventilation for Schools and Homes”, co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund, are implemented as part of the off-contest project entitled “Adding Innovation to the Economy Through Research Projects Under Innovative Public Procurement to Support the European Green Deal Strategy” under sub-measure „4.1.3: Innovative Methods of Managing Research under the ‘Smart Growth’ Program”.

Projects entitled „The District Heating Station of the Future Based on RESs” and “The Combined Heat and Power Plant in the Local Energy Distribution System” are co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund, under sub-measure „4.1.3: Innovative Methods of Managing Research under the ‘Smart Growth’ Program 2014-2020” as part of the off-contest project entitled “Adding Innovation to the Economy by Implementing the New Model of Financing Breakthrough Research Projects”.