This Device Wants To Make Your Airplane Air Less Dry

By shooting vortices in your face during your entire flight

Vortex Maker Prototype
Vortex Maker Prototype
Seen here firing smoke at the nose of a dummy.Fraunhofer IBP

The sky is a desert. Air above 15,000 feet is very dry, with a recorded humidity of less than 1 percent. Inside an airliner, humidity is kept around 20 percent. While that's wetter than the outside air, it's still drier than the Sahara Desert (itself about 25 percent humidity).

As a result, some passengers get dry throats and dry noses when flying — which is no fun for anyone. A new technology has the answer: to keep passengers from drying out, why not just shoot vortexes of air in their face?

The design comes from the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics. From the Institute:

“A vortex ring generator humidifies the air in passengers’ breathing zones, thereby increasing comfort levels without any material increase in the overall relative humidity in the cabin,” says Thomas Kirmayr, group manager at Fraunhofer IBP. The basic principle is that a generator produces small vortex rings of humid air – rather like the rings sometimes expelled by smokers. The vortex effect keeps the rings stable over a certain distance while preventing them from mixing to any significant extent with the surrounding air. The researchers have designed the generator so that the vortex rings make contact with the passengers’ upper torso; body heat then causes them to rise towards the nose and mouth. Since the chest area is covered by clothing, it is less sensitive than the face would be to the light airflow. The researchers’ goal is to increase air humidity in the breathing zone by up to 15 percent to reach a level of around 30 percent. This can be done by conditioning a minimal amount of air directed in the form of vortex rings exactly where it is needed.

To test the vortex maker, researchers first used smoke, since it has greater visibility. Then they pointed these vortexes into the nose of a dummy robot to analyze how the air worked. For final testing, they'll get real humans with real noses to experience the air blasts.

Fighting dryness with humidity is the most obvious application of these system. It’s hardly the only one. Once the system is finally incorporated into airplane seats, the institute imagines it could blast fragrances at passenger request. On a long haul flight, giving passengers the ability to control the smells around them might be as big a step for comfort as relieving dryness.