From elevators’ humble beginnings as crude hoists using pulleys and winches made by the ancient Greeks, to our current world with supertall buildings and horizontal elevators, these transportation mechanisms have come a very long way. However, in the last couple of decades the advancements in elevator technology are some of the most profound, allowing for the vertical development of our most modern cities and the tall buildings that populate them. In fact, without these advancements, the skylines of modern cities would look much different than the current man-made wonders we see in places like New York, Dubai, and Beijing. Now, one of the biggest questions concerning the future of cities is how to reoccupy these spaces that rely on vertical transportation in a way that is time efficient and ultimately, safe.
Recent elevator technology in the past has been focused on improving efficiency. But now safety has been brought to the forefront of people’s minds who otherwise may not have thought twice about stepping into a crowded car and pushing a button. Elevator air quality, in particular, is a major kink in the return to work scenarios that must be worked out beforehand. I spoke with Kevin Robertson, VP of sales North America for ThyssenKrupp Elevator, one of the largest elevator manufacturers in the world, about what kinds of technology is being used to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 for elevator passengers.
Robertson explained a multitude of different technologies and how they all play a role in safety, including two different kinds of air purification methods used to ensure that elevator cars have breathable, healthy air. Like many other elevator companies, ThyssenKrupp also provides touchless technology that allows passengers to operate the elevator using an app on their smartphones, but technology that specifically focuses on air purification for elevators is not as commonplace. The two different technologies ThyssenKrupp provides for air purification are an advanced photocatalytic oxidation (PCO) unit and an air purifying device with needlepoint bipolar ionization (NPBI) technology.
The PCO unit uses natural catalytic converter technology to produce hydrogen peroxide and other oxidizers, which have the ability to convert air into oxidizing molecules. The oxidizing molecules then work to reduce indoor air pollutants, including bacteria, viruses, mold, volatile organic compounds, and more. One of the benefits of this kind of technology is its easy installation as it doesn’t require a fan. It also doesn’t produce any kind of ozone or residue, so maintenance is also fairly simple and just requires an annual replacement of the UV light bulb that’s a part of the natural catalytic converter. However, the PCO units are specifically designed for elevators made by CASPR group, which is one of the main differences between this one and the second type of technology.
The second type of technology ThyssenKrupp Elevator uses for air purification is NPBI, which “uses an electronic charge to create a high concentration of positive and negative ions,” explained Robertson. This kind of technology can be installed in any elevator and is not manufacturer specific. Robertson continued, “These ions attach themselves to molecules and particles in the air to eliminate viruses in a cab.” Similar to the photocatalytic oxidation unit, this technology does not create any harmful byproducts, requires little if any maintenance, and it continuously cleans the air in the cab. Aside from the way they work and where they can be installed, the other primary difference between the two are the installation methods. The NPBI until is installed into the elevator’s intake system whereas the PCO unit is installed between the elevator car top and ceiling.
As the occupancy level of elevators have been lowered it has created challenges when it comes to moving building occupants without disrupting long wait times. In addition to these air purification systems for cabs, ThyssenKrupp Elevator also created TWIN technology, which allows two cabs to operate in the same shaft. “This has been in operation for about a decade now, mostly in Europe. But that’s actually been installed in Atlanta at a building for Georgia Tech called the Coda building, and we’re in the process of installing it today at Hudson Yards in New York, where Facebook will be one of their major tenants.” Having two operational cars in one elevator shaft saves buildings a ton of space and reduces wait time, which has been a growing concern for people calculating the logistics of how to return to the office. These two properties (and occupants) are particularly tech savvy, so it makes sense that they would want to use advanced elevator technology to support the people who use these spaces.
ThyssenKrupp Elevator also has an emerging technology that will allow elevators to not only travel vertically, but also horizontally—something that has been a topic of great interest for urbanists and smart city planners, as well as elevator aficionados (and yes, they do exist!). This new technique is being tested in ThyssenKrupp Elevator’s test research tower in Rottweil, Germany, will allow elevators to travel between buildings via skybridge connectors. Each cabin will run continuously like a train, again reducing wait times. In a world that is ever-aware of the current or next pandemic, this kind of technology, paired with air purification systems, can help buildings (and entire cities) return to normal operating capacities by eliminating the need for scheduling elevator usage times. While this technology may not be readily available yet, developers and city planners should begin examining the technology that can help reimagine the modern city and repopulate central business districts.
Indeed, the ancient Greeks would be very impressed if they had the chance to witness the advancements in elevator technology, but then again, anyone alive just a few decades ago should also be impressed with the strides made in that short period of time. Before the pandemic, elevator technology was frequently overlooked or rarely considered as we grew accustomed to the luxury of reaching our lofty destinations so quickly and safely. Now, people are thinking twice about the spaces we inhabit and the technology that transports us to them—perhaps not realizing all of the effort and consideration that has always gone into making these places safe. “Whether it’s through service, maintenance, modernization, new installation, or our innovations, what we do every day is really about keeping the riding public safe, as well as our employees and technicians,” said Robertson.