Clearing the air

Updated: 2014-02-16 08:35

By Erik Nilsson(China Daily)

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A Dutch designer aspires to develop a massive electromagnet to trap Beijing's smog. While many argue it's more of an artistic statement than a practical solution, the notion demonstrates creativity in tackling pollution, Erik Nilsson reports.

Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde dreams of building a giant "electronic vacuum cleaner" to suck smog from Beijing's skies.

According to his vision, the world's largest air purifier could also turn a 1-kilometer-diameter ring of poisonous haze into a 1-centimeter-diameter ring of condensed particulate people can wear.

After the massive electromagnet captures the particulate, it could be compacted with an industrial press or mixed with adhesive to fashion jewelry, he believes.

"The smog ring is one example of many possibilities," he says.

While smog is toxic to inhale as particulate, he claims it would be safe to wear on a person's finger as concentrate.

These seemingly sci-fi innovations have a long way to go before feasibility.

But Roosegaarde has already developed an indoor prototype and hopes to install the first machine in a Beijing park within a year.

"We've been working on a series on interactive landscapes," says the designer, whose previous creations include dance floors that produce electricity from the people heaving atop them and "smart highways" that generate their own light.

The vacuum concept dawned on Roosegaarde while gazing out a Beijing hotel window, he says.

"I saw the CCTV building," he tells Dezeen Magazine. "I had a good day when I could see it, and I had a bad day when I could not see it. On a bad day, the smog is completely like a veil. You don't see anything. I thought: That's interesting. That's a design problem."

He tells China Daily: "We thought it would be interesting to use smog as a design component."

The vacuum would be a mass of underground copper coils that generates an electrostatic charge that pulls smog particles from the sky.

"It's a similar principle to if you have a statically charged balloon that attracts your hair," Roosegaarde tells Dezeen.

"If you apply that to smog to create fields of static electricity of ions, which literally attract or magnetize the smog so it drops down so you can clean it, (it's) like an electronic vacuum cleaner."

It would operate according to principles similar to those of household air purifiers' electrostatic precipitators but would function on a mass scale in public spaces.

"The idea sounds like it uses the same principle as electrostatic particle collectors, which are common in China's thermal power plants," Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences vice-president Chai Fahe says.

"It's clever but may not be a realistic solution to Beijing's air pollution. How much could it really affect smog? Do we turn the capital into an electromagnetic field? The electricity required to power the device may produce more pollution than it absorbs."

Roosegaarde claims the smog that'd be produced by the electricity that runs the device would be "thousands" of times less than the amount it cleans.

"This is one of the huge advantages of our technique - the low energy consumption - especially compared to competitors," says Lia van de Vorle, CEO of the machine's manufacturer and the technology's patent owner ENS Europe.

The prototype developed with University of Delft scientists punched a 1-square-meter hole in a 25-square-meter smog-choked room within seconds. A video of the experiment is online.

The device can capture PM10, PM2.5, PM1 and smaller particles, Van de Vorle claims.

Roosegaarde says it does not pull in fog, which might interfere with precipitation.

But while some suggest the technology appears to indicate a paradigm shift that will blue leaden skies, Roosegaarde himself believes it's no panacea.

"It's not the answer to smog," he says.

"But it's making people aware there are solutions. The solution to smog is human - not technological. We should change the way we behave."

That means more than developing sustainable transportation, energy grids and industry, he believes.

"There are no shortcuts in this world," he says.

"Instead, we need a big shift."

That's more psychological than technological, Roosegaarde explains.

He says people need to live according to the idea: "On Earth, there are no passengers. Only crew. So, we need to start to change and redesign our behavior."

Van de Vorle says the question of whether the device could end smog is difficult to answer but isn't the entire question.

"That's a much wider discussion," she says.

"We should have a complete discussion about addressing the causes of pollution instead of only cleaning the air. Smog is just a part of the global pollution problem."

But it's still a promising weapon in the arsenal, she says.

"This technology will be able to purify the air of a complete park or a city. We're convinced that we will be able to achieve that in the future," Van de Vorle says.

"We'll take the first steps in the next year. After that, we can figure out how long it will take until it can clear the smog from an entire city."

The company is working in other cities, but many don't want to reveal that because they consider their smog problems "sensitive", she says.

"This is a revolutionary technology," Van de Vorle says.

"It's a platform technology. We make this technique accessible for all possible markets to purify the air we breathe."

But global market penetration will take longer than research and development, Van de Vorle says.

"It still will take time before we get it into all markets, although we have applications ready for use," she says.

"We have to think about how we can decrease the number of people who are dying early because of pollution."

The World Health Organization recently declared air pollution "a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths".

While China's smog has captivated international attention, air pollution remains a global problem.

"In Holland, we don't have the amount of pollution which is visible - smog - but still we have air pollution," Van de Vorle says.

"The problem is, we can't see it. The smaller particles that you can't see are the most dangerous."

Cultural attache with the Dutch embassy in Beijing Patrick de Vries says: "We face similar challenges. It's fascinating to see how we both deal with them."

That fits Roosegaarde's philosophy.

"I'm hoping we can learn from each other to make more sustainable cities," he says.

His clients have called him a "hippy with a business plan".

He calls the project "techno-poetry".

"It's about merging the world's innovation with new imagination and a poetry agenda showing this is possible. So why aren't we doing it?" he says.

"We know it's possible. The technology is there. The necessity is there. Now, it's about finding a merge button."

Contact the writer at erik_nilsson

Wu Wencong contributed to this story.

 Clearing the air

Daan Roosegaarde's research focuses on developing a giant "electronic vacuum cleaner" that can suck smog from Beijing's skies. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily 02/16/2014 page3)