Here are five other things we could do with air pollution

The Beazley Smog Free Tower. Image: Design Museum.

I remember vividly the first time I visited London overnight as a child. Returning home the next evening, I sneezed dark grey soot into a tissue.

My first thought was that it was my brain falling out and that I might die. It turns out the culprit was actually London’s own grey matter, the smog and pollution that fills the air and streets.

The sheer quantity of pollutant matter in London is intimidating. In 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available, London released a fairly terrifying 37.8m metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere. That’s to say nothing of the particulates and other gases belching out into our streets.

But while coughing Londoners are busy converting dirty air to dirty tissues, designers and scientists have been finding better things to make from that pollution. They’re part of a revolution in thinking which extends the concept of recycling to the air we breathe – and could turn pollution from a dangerous problem to a desirable commodity.

The Biolamp

Just as trees react CO2 with glucose to produce oxygen and fuel for their growth (thank you, GCSE science) we could be turning CO2 into useful biofuel in our streets.

In 2011 Hungarian designer Peter Horvath released concepts for a BioLamp, a nifty, futuristic-looking streetlamp that sucks in CO2 and pumps it through algae, which convert to biofuel (which is stored for later), and oxygen (which is released back into the air). The biofuel could be easily collected, or even piped to fuelling stations for industrial or transport use.

The green tech inside is disguised by the streetlamp function, which is itself solar-powered. In this way, putting more streetlamps into a road, instead of increasing fuel consumption and emissions, would actually improve air quality in the area.

Horvath’s creation was awarded special mention at the Milano WellTech award, and even mentioned in the European Parliament via a written question, but has not yet been adopted.

AirCarbon

As well as lighting our streets and fuelling our cars, carbon emissions could be furnishing our homes. Currently most plastics are derived from oil and gas, with greenhouse gases emitted during their production.

A publicity film for Newlight.

Californian plastic designers Newlight Technologies decided to reverse the process, pulling in those greenhouse gases to create plastic without the need for fossil fuels. CEO Mark Herrema explains:

“On a continuous, large-scale basis, we’re converting greenhouse gases such as carbon and methane dioxide into biodegradable plastic, plastics that require no oil and no food crops”.

Perhaps most extraordinary is that it’s actually cheaper to produce than conventional plastic, thanks to a catalyst the firm has developed that works at nine times the power of previous technologies.

The firm has already started making carbon-negative, biodegradable plastic packaging, and last year signed a contract to supply plastics to Ikea. So the cheap furniture your landlord gets you may soon originate from the air outside your window.


The Smog Free Tower

But CO2 isn’t the only pollutant filling our streets and lungs. This January, more than 20 sites across the capital recorded ‘Very High’ levels of particulate matter, the highest level possible.

Dutch designer Daan Roosegaard’s solution (pictured at the top of this page), which was exhibited at the Design Museum earlier this year, creates jewellery from those particles. It’s a simple-enough process: a tower sucks in dirty air then ionises (gives electric charge to) solid particles. The particles are then attracted to a central electrode to collect them, compressed into blocks and set in resin to create sellable rings. It’s a process inspired by the natural creation of diamonds through compression – except these ‘diamonds’ are black and made from car exhaust.

Roosegaard and the Delft University researcher he worked with reckon that air is left 75 per cent cleaner by their tower. And given the amount of souvenir shops around London, there’s surely a market for jewellery literally made from the city.

AirInk

A Kickstarter campaign in February raised nearly four times its original goal and brought to life AirInk, artist-quality black ink made entirely from particulate pollution. Their device, the Kaalink, is fitted to vehicle exhaust pipes and collects particulates before they even get into the air. The result is purified of any carcinogens and heavy metals, then made into ink.

A publicity photograph for AirInk. 

The first prototype, by MIT student Anirudh Sharma, was a handheld printer which used oil, rubbing alcohol and candle soot. With some friends, he scaled up the design and founded Graviky Labs. So far they reckon they’ve cleaned 1.6trn litres of air around their headquarters outside Mumbai.

You can currently buy AirInk in the form of marker pens and screen-printing ink, and they’re planning to expand into paints. In April Sharma came to London, and in an interview with the Guardian said he wants to fit his Kaalink devices to black cabs, adding: “If each of the 20,000 black cabs in London had our product, we could clean 30trn litres of air a year.”

The Smog Brick

One man’s plan to create physical objects from air pollution is less manufacturing and more Tate Modern. In 2015, a Chinese artist and activist who goes by the name Nut Brother “vacuumed” enough smog from Beijing’s air to create a brick.

 Claiming to model himself on Subcomandante Marcos, the gun-toting thought leader of the Mexican Zapatista rebel group, he bought a vacuum cleaner online and dragged it through the polluted streets until he had collected enough particulate matter to compress it into a small, brown block. It may not be the most efficient solution, but if you fancy a weekend project…

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.