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A particulate air filter is a device composed of fibrous or porous materials which removes solid particulates such as dust, pollen, mold, and bacteria from the air. Filters containing an adsorbent or catalyst such as charcoal (carbon) may also remove odors and gaseous pollutants such as volatile organic compounds or ozone. Air filters are used in applications where air quality is important, notably in building ventilation systems and in engines.

Some buildings, as well as aircraft and other human-made environments (e.g., satellites and space shuttles) use foam, pleated paper, or spun fiberglass filter elements. Another method, air ionizors, use fibers or elements with a static electric charge, which attract dust particles. The air intakes of internal combustion engines and air compressors tend to use either paper, foam, or cotton filters. Oil bath filters have fallen out of favor. The technology of air intake filters of gas turbines has improved significantly in recent years, due to improvements in the aerodynamics and fluid dynamics of the air-compressor part of the gas turbines.

Internal combustion engine air filter

Used auto engine air filter, clean side
Used auto engine air filter, dirty side
Auto engine air filter clogged with dust and grime

Low-temperature oxidation catalyst used to convert carbon monoxide to less toxic carbon dioxide at room temperature. It can also remove formaldehyde from the air.

The combustion air filter prevents abrasive particulate matter from entering the engine’s cylinders, where it would cause mechanical wear and oil contamination.

Most fuel injected vehicles use a pleated paper filter element in the form of a flat panel. This filter is usually placed inside a plastic box connected to the throttle body with duct work. Older vehicles that use crabuters  or throttle body fuel injection typically use a cylindrical air filter, usually between 100 millimetres (4 in) and 400 millimetres (16 in) in diameter. This is positioned above or beside the carburetor or throttle body, usually in a metal or plastic container which may incorporate ducting to provide cool and/or warm inlet air, and secured with a metal or plastic lid. The overall unit (filter and housing together) is called the air cleaner.

Paper

Main article: Filter Paper

Pleated paper filter elements are the nearly exclusive choice for automobile engine air cleaners, because they are efficient, easy to service, and cost-effective. The “paper” term is somewhat misleading, as the filter media are considerably different from papers used for writing or packaging, etc. There is a persistent belief among tuners, fomented by advertising for aftermarket non-paper replacement filters, that paper filters flow poorly and thus restrict engine performance. In fact, as long as a pleated-paper filter is sized appropriately for the airflow volumes encountered in a particular application, such filters present only trivial restriction to flow until the filter has become significantly clogged with dirt. Construction equipment engines also use this. The reason is that the paper is bent in zig-zag shape, and the total area of the paper is very large, in the range of 50 times of the air opening.

Foam

Oil-wetted polyurethane foam elements are used in some aftermarket replacement automobile air filters. Foam was in the past widely used in air cleaners on small engines on lawnmawers and other power equipment, but automotive-type paper filter elements have largely supplanted oil-wetted foam in these applications. Foam filters are still commonly used on air compressors for air tools up to 5Hp. Depending on the grade and thickness of foam employed, an oil-wetted foam filter element can offer minimal airflow restriction or very high dirt capacity, the latter property making foam filters a popular choice in off-road rallying and other motorsport applications where high levels of dust will be encountered. Due to the way dust is captured on foam filters, large amounts may be trapped without measurable change in airflow restriction.

Cotton

Oiled cotton gauze is employed in a growing number of aftermarket automotive air filters marketed as high-performance items. In the past, cotton gauze saw limited use in original-equipment automotive air filters. However, since the introduction of the Abarth SS versions, the Fiat subsidiary supplies cotton gauze air filters as OE filters.

Stainless steel

Stainless steel mesh is another example of medium which allow more air to pass through. Stainless steel mesh comes with different mesh counts, offering different filtration standards. In an extreme modified engine lacking in space for a cone based air filter, some will opt to install a simple stainless steel mesh over the turbo to ensure no particles enter the engine via the turbo.

Oil bath

An oil bath air cleaner consists of a sump containing a pool of oil, and an insert which is filled with fiber, mesh, foam, or another coarse filter media. When the cleaner is assembled, the media-containing body of the insert sits a short distance above the surface of the oil pool. The rim of the insert overlaps the rim of the sump. This arrangement forms a lyberinthine path through which the air must travel in a series of U-turns: up through the gap between the rims of the insert and the sump, down through the gap between the outer wall of the insert and the inner wall of the sump, and up through the filter media in the body of the insert. This U-turn takes the air at high velocity across the surface of the oil pool. Larger and heavier dust and dirt particles in the air cannot make the turn due to their inertia, so they fall into the oil and settle to the bottom of the base bowl. Lighter and smaller particles are trapped by the filtration media in the insert, which is wetted by oil droplets aspirated there into by normal airflow.

Oil bath air cleaners were very widely used in automotive and small engine applications until the widespread industry adoption of the paper filter in the early 1960s. Such cleaners are still used in off-road equipment where very high levels of dust are encountered, for oil bath air cleaners can sequester a great deal of dirt relative to their overall size without loss of filtration efficiency or airflow. However, the liquid oil makes cleaning and servicing such air cleaners messy and inconvenient, they must be relatively large to avoid excessive restriction at high airflow rates, and they tend to increase exhaust emissions of unburned hydrocarbons due to oil aspiration when used on spark-ignition engines.

Water bath

In the early 20th century (about 1900 to 1930), water bath air cleaners were used in some applications (cars, trucks, tractors, and portable and stationary engines). They worked on roughly the same principles as oil bath air cleaners. For example, the original Fordson Tractor had a water bath air cleaner. By the 1940s, oil bath designs had displaced water bath designs because of better filtering performance.

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