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.
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.
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.
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…