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…

 
 
 
 

17 things the proposed “Tulip” skyscraper that London mayor Sadiq Khan just scrapped definitely resembled

Artist's impression. See if you can guess which one The Tulip is. Image: Foster + Partners.

Sadiq Khan has scrapped plans to build a massive glass thing in the City of London, on the grounds it would knacker London’s skyline. The “Tulip” would have been a narrow, 300m skyscraper, designed by Norman Foster’s Foster & Partners, with a viewing platform at the top. Following the mayor’s intervention, it now won’t be anything of the sort.

This may be no bad thing. For one thing, a lot of very important and clever people have been noisily unconvinced by the design. Take this statement from Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, from earlier this year: “This building, a lift shaft with a bulge on top, would damage the very thing its developers claim they will deliver – tourism and views of London’s extraordinary heritage.”

More to the point, the design was just bloody silly. Here are some other things that, if it had been built, the Tulip would definitely have looked like.

1. A matchstick.

2. A drumstick.

3. A cotton ear bud.

4. A mystical staff, of the sort that might be wielded by Gandalf the Grey.

5. A giant spring onion.

6. A can of deodorant, from one of the brands whose cans are seemingly deliberately designed in such a way so as to remind male shoppers of the fact that they have a penis.

7. A device for unblocking a drain.

8. One of those lights that’s meant to resemble a candle.

9. A swab stick, of the sort sometimes used at sexual health clinics, in close proximity to somebody’s penis.

10.  A nearly finished lollipop.

11. Something a child would make from a pipe cleaner in art class, which you then have to pretend to be impressed by and keep on show for the next six months.

12. An arcology, of the sort seen in classic video game SimCity 2000.

13. Something you would order online and then pray will arrive in unmarked packaging.

14. The part of the male anatomy that the thing you are ordering online is meant to be a more impressive replica of.

15. A building that appears on the London skyline in the Star Trek franchise, in an attempt to communicate that we are looking at the FUTURE.


14a. Sorry, the one before last was a bit vague. What I actually meant was: a penis.

16. A long thin tube with a confusing bulbous bit on the end.

17. A stamen. Which, for avoidance of doubt, is a plant’s penis.

One thing it definitely does not resemble:

A sodding tulip.

Anyway, it’s bad, and it’s good the mayor has blocked it.

That’s it, that’s the take.

(Thanks to Anoosh Chakelian, Jasper Jackson, Patrick Maguire for helping me get to 17.)

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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