Enormous air purifier creates bubbles of clean air in polluted cities

The contents of the atmosphere obviously get a lot of attention these days, but it’s almost all in reference to global climate change. Atmospheric carbon has the potential to severely disturb or even threaten the entire species — clearly, that’s the biggest airborne threat. And yet, shorter term will identify a much larger threat in the air: particulate matter. Released by power plans, cars (as VW knows quite well), and industrial processes, these tiny particles have been blamed for thousands of deaths per year, especially in densely populated urban areas. Now, a Dutch designer has an innovative bid to address airborne particulates: take them directly out of the air.

It’s called the Smog Free Tower, it’s the brainchild of Daan Roosegaarde and a supporting team. Roosegaarde says it draws in polluted air from public spaces and passes it through filters, expelling air that is “75% more clean” than when it went in. This creates areas around the towers of markedly increased breathe-ability. It can do this for 30,000 cubic meters of air per hour, and even collects the particles into smog “gems” that can be sold (or used as Kickstarterincentives).

An aerial view of the tower.

It works like an enormous air ionizer — it is an enormous air ionizer. It releases positively charged ions into the city air it collects, and these ions attach to the small particles in the air. A negatively charged electrode then draws in these positive ions, and the dangerous particles along with them. Collected particles are pressed into “Smog Diamonds” for disposal, or sale to people who want jewelry they won’t consider wearing in a month.

Now, earlier I said that air pollution is a bigger short-term threat than global warming — is that true? So-called climate refugees are going to become a bigger problem in coming decades, but certainly it will take quite some time to reach the levels of human harm currently seen in air pollution. Recent studies have found that as many as three million people die prematurely due to air pollution, every year. Other research put it in slightly more understandable terms: breathing in downtown Beijing can be as bad for your lungs as a two pack-a-day smoking habit, or about 40 cigarettes.

Even if those numbers are greatly overestimated, that’s still a bigger human problem than malaria and HIV combined, two scourges that rightly receive significant investment. It’s not totally clear how much these towers cost, but based on the original Kickstarter campaign it’s certainly within city budgets — probably on the order of $100,000 or so. And since the particulate matter is collected out of the filters, they don’t need to be swapped out every time they fill up, keeping the costs of running them relatively low.

The smog tower obviously isn’t the solution to air pollution — these things could never offset the large-scale pollution of a major world city. However, they can create small pockets of lowered smog concentration throughout city. People can walk through these bubbles, reportedly smelling the difference, which could end up being a powerful awareness-building issue. If the stick of the chance to be one of the 0.017% of all people who die from air pollution every year doesn’t work, perhaps the carrot of pleasant air will work.

The Smog Free Tower will be a powerful conversation starter, which the issue of air pollution badly needs. That’s why it’s a shame the pilot project is rolling out in places like Rotterdam, rather than somewhere like Beijing or Los Angeles — but given time, we could see pockets of breathable air in metropolises, too.

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