The Pollution Alchemists
Coronavirus lockdown’s clear skies and fresh air will soon disappear in a puff of smoke. To make progress on pollution we need practical, game-changing ideas. Three companies have already started.
It’s time for some blue sky thinking about air pollution.
What if we stopped trying to put the wispy genie back in its bottle? Stopped trying to cut pollution and instead accepted it as inevitable? What if we considered salvaging it instead of eliminating it?
American futurist R. Buckmaster Fuller wrote: “Pollution is nothing but resources we’re not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.”
Now there’s a revolutionary thought. Pollution as a valuable resource.
Once Lockdown Ends
It would be wonderful if the swift action that closed the world down in four weeks could be applied as decisively and collectively to solving the pollution crisis. But the urgency of escaping a mad axeman is always going to eclipse slow death by a thousand cuts.
Intentions may be good, but the likelihood is that once restrictions are lifted, the bounce back effect will make air pollution even worse. There will probably be a potential surge in transport emissions as people go out and about to celebrate their freedom. And countries keen to kick-start their stricken economies will prioritise production over pollution measures. It’s already happening.
At the end of March, the Trump administration in the US rolled back legislation passed during Obama’s presidency requiring auto companies to make vehicles 4.7 percent more fuel efficient every year. In a move seen to benefit oil companies and auto manufacturers, the target is now only 1.5 percent efficiency and is expected to make cars $1000 cheaper. The cost to the environment is estimated to be almost a billion more tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere during the car’s lifetime.
In Wuhan, the Chinese city of 11 million inhabitants where the pandemic started, lockdown is over after nearly 11 weeks. A report in the New York Times estimates that 55,000 people left the city by train the day lockdown ended. The same report says about 95 percent of the city’s 11,000 businesses are now back in operation. It won’t be long before the pollution-free skies that could be seen from space return to their high pre-pandemic levels.
The harsh truth is that polluters will continue to pollute. These polluters range from big businesses in developed countries, to people struggling to survive in the poorest parts of the world. We can judge harshly companies in developed countries who sacrifice long term planetary health for short term financial gain. But for developing nations, limiting air pollution is a luxury that a large part of the population can’t afford.
One of these is India, home to 14 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. An estimated one million people in the country die prematurely because of air pollution.
The pollution is largely a result of poverty: people cook over stoves which burn biomass cakes and wood. They heat homes using the same fossil fuels. Farmers burn rice stubble to clear fields. Population density means gridlocked traffic spewing fumes. Their vehicles — taxis, rickshaws, trucks — use adulterated fuel to save money.
India is currently experiencing clean air courtesy of lockdown, but realistically, it is unlikely the pollution situation will change once this is over. The population will still be poor, probably poorer than before. They will still need to use their biomass stoves and save money by adding stuff to their fuel.
It is a daunting and depressing situation. That once the world is up and running again, nature’s brief respite will be over, like the condemned prisoner’s last walk on the grass before execution. Hoping poor people and rich governments will change their behaviour to focus on the health of the planet seems like a vain hope.
We need to revolutionise how we think of the pollution problem. Instead of trying to change behaviour, capitalise on it instead. Accept that pollution is going to happen and consider how to use it in a positive way. Fortunately, there are people doing this already.
Anirudh Sharma is founder of MIT spin-off Graviky Labs. He is a multi-award-winning designer and inventor from India who “loves problem-solving and building technologies that have a real visible impact on people’s lives.”
In 2013 during a visit to a conference in India, Sharma noticed his hands and clothes were stained black with specks of pollution. Where most of us would see a dirty shirt, he saw a dye. He spent the next three years back at MIT Labs trying to turn emissions into ink. This led to the creation of Graviky Labs in India in 2016, which produces Air-Ink — the black ink made from pollution, and Kaalink, the device to capture the pollution which is retrofitted to car and generator exhausts.
There is a triple advantage in terms of pollution. The process captures and contains 95 percent of emissions from car exhausts and diesel generators at source to make into ink. It reduces the need to burn fossil fuels in order to create the “carbon black” pigment manufacturers use for carbon paper, ink, rubber and paint. In addition, it prevents polluters from disposing of their waste into rivers and streams, a common problem in India.
“What if we could use the ugliness in the air to make our streets more beautiful?”
It takes 45 minutes of tailpipe pollution to produce 30 millilitres of ink. The process is still expensive, although Air-Ink now produces paints, marker pens and screen-printing ink. They would love to be part of the printer ink cartridge business, but that is the holy grail for now.
To get the word out they partnered with Singaporean beer company Tiger, inviting artists in the Sheong Wan district of Hong Kong to create murals and artworks from the ink. Sharma launched the idea with a question: “What if we could use the ugliness in the air to make our streets more beautiful?”
Artists around the world started using it. They were impressed. Far from being a gimmick, the ink is of high quality, deep black with long-lasting, strong staining properties and can be used on a variety of materials.
The start-up now harvests pollution in India, China and the EU. It has partnered with several companies, including three Fortune 500 businesses, to produce carbon negative printing, use Air-Ink in packaging, tiles, fashion apparel and even credit cards. It has garnered a great deal of attention and has recently been part of an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. Sharma’s TED Talk on the ink is fascinating.
People have been captivated by its simplicity and effectiveness. As Sharma says: “Particulate matter derives its carcinogenic properties from its ability to float in air … enter into our respiratory system and settle in lungs. By binding the captured pollution into inks, we are able to take away its ability to float in air.”
Pollution not floating any more.That’s got to be a good thing.
In 2016, during Beijing Design Week, Dutch architect, artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde created a 7-metre tall Smog Free Tower. A kind of vacuum cleaner for polluted air using “positive ionisation technology”.
Since then his social design lab Studio Roosegaarde has been on a campaign to clean up the air in public areas “allowing people to breathe and experience clean air for free.” The towers can clean 30,000 cubic metres of air per hour while running on a small amount of green electricity.
Recently Roosegaards installed a Smog Eating Billboard at Udem University in Mexico, providing clean air for 104,000 people a day.
In 2017, he created the innovative Smog Free bicycle, which “inhales polluted air, cleans it, and releases clean air around the cyclist.” developed with “Ofo, the leading Chinese bike-sharing programme”, it won the Ethics Ethical Award, 2019.
“I don’t believe in Utopia, but in protopia.”
Perhaps the most quirky invention is the limited edition Smog Free Ring, not just a cool accessory but apparently used as an engagement and wedding ring by environmentally-friendly couples. The ring, launched in a Kickstarter campaign, is a perspex cube containing compressed smog particles from the smog eating towers and which “donates 1000 cubic metres of clean air to the city.”
Creative changemaker Roosegaarde is another recipient of multiple awards, a popular speaker (including TED talks) and visiting professor and consultant, recently participating in the World Economic Forum. He is a visionary, his philosophy summed up in his new book Phaedon: “People won’t change because of facts or numbers. But if we can trigger the imagination of a new world, that’s the way to activate people. I don’t believe in Utopia, but in protopia; step by step upgrading the world around us. Art is our activator.”
Italcementi is located in Milan, Italy, at the epicentre of the country’s coronavirus epidemic. It also has a subsidiary, Essroc Cement in North America. They have developed a cement called TXActive®. It contains titanium oxide and when it’s exposed to sunlight, it breaks down atmospheric pollutants. Theoretically if just 15 percent of buildings and roads in a city used the cement, it could reduce 50% of air pollutants.
The innovation originated when Italcementi were asked to help in the construction of the Jubilee Church designed by American architect Richard Meier in Tor Tre Teste, Rome. Built to celebrate 2000 years of Christianity, the church has three massive curved walls made from concrete. These “sails” were to be as white as possible for as long as possible, and Italcementi’s self-cleaning cement was the answer. However, when they tested the material, Italcementi discovered an added bonus — it also broke down nitrogen oxides emitted from burning fossil fuels.
Twenty years on and the technology has developed, as has the amount of pollution in northern Italy. According to the manufacturers, 1000 square metres of the smog eating material is the equivalent of planting 100 deciduous trees. It can eliminate pollution given off by 30 petrol or 10 diesel vehicles.
At the moment, Italcementi’s labs are busy working on ways to assist during the Covid-19 crisis, such as 3D printing of valves for respirators and making disinfectant gel for families and businesses in the area, one of the most affected by the virus. But they are also studying how the cement could play a role. Head of research Enrico Borgarello points out that as well as being a smog eater, TXActive has strong antibacterial properties.
He says “together with other research centres and hospitals we’re looking at whether it can also protect against a virus like the current one. All researchers, even those from sectors which don’t appear to have that close a connection like ours, must do their best at a time when humanity is fighting against an insidious enemy. Everyone in their own particular field can contribute by looking for solutions which counteract this virus and other diseases and allow us to live in safer and healthier environments.”
Pragmatism is the Way Forward
These three innovators are just a sample of the clever thinking that is happening around air pollution. Of course they would like to eliminate it at source but that is not going to happen, even after a global pandemic in which air pollution has played a part. Their pragmatic solutions ingeniously incorporate the pollution and then use it to make something better.
Trying to put genies back into bottles is laudable, but tricky. Maybe we should take a more practical approach. Evaluate their wish-making abilities, cloak them in stardust, and hire them out as magicians instead.