Climate Wars: Cropland Destruction and Improvement

cereals-agriculture-earClimate Change is currently recognized as one of the greatest threats to the stability and well being of the world and its people. But far worse than rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, and an increase in forest fires is the threat that it could have on the global food supply. As our population increases by several billion over the next few decades, these problems will make it even harder to feed everyone.

Up until now, predictions and projections have taken into account rising temperatures, drought, erosion, and longer growing seasons. But a recent study, produced by researchers at MIT and Colorado State University shows that air pollution is also a major factor. In their report, which was published in Nature Climate Change, they claim that ground-level ozone could exacerbate the effects on staple food crops like wheat, soybeans, maize, and rice.

crop_failureUsing two scenarios, researchers mapped out the tandem relationship between pollution and climate change. As a baseline, the MIT and Colorado State researchers estimate that climate change alone will result in a 11% decrease in global crop production. But if countries fail to substantially curb greenhouse gas emissions (the first scenario), the scientists’ model shows that air pollution could trigger an additional 4% of crop failures.

That means that barring significant changes, croplands could see a 15% drop in productivity in the next 40 years. But if countries work to decrease greenhouse gas emissions after 2040, the researchers’ model shows that reduced air pollution could actually offset other negative impacts of warming on crops. They calculate that reduced air pollution in this second scenario could actually increase yields by 3%.

Pollution over Mexico CityThe link between air quality and food production may seem a bit odd, but the logic is actually very straightforward. Basically, the atmosphere forms ozone when sunlight energizes pollutants generated from sources like cars and power plants. Ozone concentrations can also increase at higher temperatures, the kind that already wither temperature-sensitive crops like maize. On top of the heat, increased ozone levels attack pollution-sensitive crops, like wheat.

In the climate scenario where emissions decrease after 2040, the reduction in ozone alone would be enough to increase wheat production in the U.S. and China, the researchers say. Their findings show that reducing air pollution could slow the negative impacts of climate change–even enough to reverse some of them. But some regions will be negatively impacted no matter what.

trafficAs Amos Tai, one of the study’s co-authors, explained:

It appears that South Asia will be the most hard-hit by the combination of warming and ozone trends, where ozone is expected to increase even in the more optimistic scenario. African countries with low domestic production and heavily reliant on food imports are also expected to suffer more in terms of climate-pollution-driven food insecurity.

In short, food production is likely to suffer no matter what, but the effects could be confined to certain areas of the world. With proper management, and the provision of food to these regions from those that are unaffected (say, a pollution-fighting US and China), the worst could be avoided. And there’s some good news coming from another report, which claims we can further increase our food production without taxing the environment.

crop_growthAccording to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, by focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of three billion more people while simultaneously decreasing agriculture’s environmental carbon footprint. The report, published in Science back in July, may sound like fantasy, but the argument offered is logical and compelling.

The report focuses on 17 key crops that produce 86 percent of the world’s crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertilizer consumption. It then proposes a set of key actions in three broad areas that have the greatest potential for reducing the environmental impact of agriculture while boosting production. For each, it identifies specific “leverage points” where NGOs, foundations, governments, businesses and citizens can have the greatest impact.

agriculture_indiaThe biggest opportunities cluster in six countries – China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan – along with Europe. As the report’s lead author Paul West, co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative, explains:

This paper represents an important next step beyond previous studies that have broadly outlined strategies for sustainably feeding people. By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good.

Overall, the report identified a number of major areas of opportunity and key leverage points for improving the efficiency and sustainability of global food production. First, there is reducing the “yield gap” – i.e. the difference between potential and actual crop yields – in many parts of the world. Currently, the largest gaps are to be found in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, and reducing it by just 50% could provide enough calories to feed 850 million more people.

china agriculture researchSecond, there is improving growth efficiency. The study identified two key areas where major opportunities exist to reduce climate impacts and improve efficiency of crop growth. These included the reduction of emissions of global greenhouse gas – which agriculture is responsible for 20 t0 35 percent of – in the form of CO2, tropical deforestation and methane, as well as improved efficiency in water usage.

In the case of emissions, the biggest opportunities are in Brazil and Indonesia where deforestation is a major problem, and in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, livestock, and crop fertilization all lead to sizable carbon and methane emissions. With respect to nutrient use, the study found that worldwide, 60 percent of nitrogen and nearly 50 percent of phosphorus applications exceed what crops need to grow.

agribusinessIn the case of water usage, the greatest opportunities are in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, wheat and corn create the most demand for irrigation. India, Pakistan, China and the U.S. also account for the bulk of irrigation water use in water-limited areas. Thus, by boosting crop water use efficiency could also reduce water demand by 8 to 15% without compromising food production.

Third, the report calls for improved efficiency in crop use, which can be done by shifting crops from livestock to humans use and reducing food waste. Currently, the amount of crops fed to animals is sufficient to meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people. The U.S., China and Western Europe account for the bulk of this “diet gap,” with corn being the main crop diverted to animal feed. Shifting these crops could also form a “safety net” in the event of an unforeseen shortfall.

Last, but not least, the report calls for the elimination of food waste, which accounts for some 30 to 50 percent of food production worldwide. Again, the U.S., China and India are the major players, and reducing waste in these three countries alone could yield food for more than 400 million people. All told, these changes could allow for enough food for an additional 3 billion people, which is what the world population is expected to reach by 2050.

world_hungerOverall, West summarizes the report and its recommendations as follows:

Sustainably feeding people today and in the future is one of humanity’s grand challenges. Agriculture is the main source of water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat loss, yet we need to grow more food. Fortunately, the opportunities to have a global impact and move in the right direction are clustered. By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment. Of course, while calories are a key measure of improving food security, nutrition, access and cultural preferences must also be addressed. But the need to boost food security is high. So let’s do it.

As always, the good news is contained within the bad. Or more precisely, every crisis present us with an opportunity for change and advancement. Though Climate Change and air pollution may threaten current and future levels of food production, there are solutions. And in all cases, they present opportunities for healthier living, more efficient use of land and water, and a more sustainable way of meeting our most basic needs.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, sciencedaily.com

Climate Crisis: (More) Smog-Eating Buildings

pollution_eating2Air pollution is now one of the greatest health concerns in the world, exceeding cigarettes as the number one killer of people worldwide. With an estimated 7 million deaths in 2012 alone, the WHO now ranks it as the biggest global environmental killer. In fact, of the 1,600 major cities surveyed from around the world, over half are now above the safe limits of Particulate Matter (PM), with the highest cost borne by the poorer regions of South-East Asia and the Western Pacific.

Because of this, Carbon Capture technology is being seriously considered as an integral part of the future of urban planning and architecture. So in addition to addressing the issues if housing needs, urban sprawl and energy usage, major buildings in the future may also come equipped with air-cleaning features. Already, several major cities are taking advantage, and some innovative and futuristic designs have emerged as a result. Consider the following examples:

aircleaning_skyscraperCO2ngress Gateway Towers: Conceived by architects Danny Mui and Benjamin Sahagun while studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology, this concept for an air-cleaning skyscraper earned them an honorable mention in the 2012 CTBUH student competition. And while there are no currents plans to build it, it remains a fitting example of innovative architecture and merging carbon capture technology with urban planning and design.

The concept involves two crooked buildings that are outfitted with a filtration system that feeds captured CO2 to algae grown in the building’s interior, which then converts it into biofuels. Aside from the scrubbers, the buildings boast some other impressive features to cut down on urban annoyances. These include the “double skin facade”- two layers of windows – that can cut down on outside traffic noise. In addition, the spaces on either side of the buildings’ central elevator core can be used as outdoor terraces for residents.

CC_catalytic_clothingCatalytic Clothing: A collaborative effort between Helen Storey and Tony Ryan, the goal of this experiment is to incorporate the same pollution-eating titanium dioxide nanoparticles used in carbon capture façade into laundry detergent to coat clothing. According to Ryan, one person wearing the nanoparticle-washed clothes could remove 5 to 6 grams of nitrogen dioxide from the air a day; two pairs of jeans could clean up the nitrogen dioxide from one car.

If enough people in downtown New York, Beijing, Mumbai, Mexico City – or any other major city of the world renowned for urban density, high concentrations of fossil-fuel burning cars, and air pollution – would wear clothing coating with these nanoparticles, air pollution could be severely reduced in a few years time. And all at a cost of a few added cents a wash cycle!

CC_in_praise_of_airIn Praise of Air: Located in Sheffield, England, this 10×20 meter poster shows Simon Armitage’s poem “In Praise of Air”. Appropriately, the poster doubles as a pollution-eating façade that uses titanium dioxide nanoparticles. The full poem reads as follow:

I write in praise of air.  I was six or five
when a conjurer opened my knotted fist
and I held in my palm the whole of the sky.
I’ve carried it with me ever since.

Let air be a major god, its being
and touch, its breast-milk always tilted
to the lips.  Both dragonfly and Boeing
dangle in its see-through nothingness…

Among the jumbled bric-a-brac I keep
a padlocked treasure-chest of empty space,
and on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog
or civilization crosses the street

with a white handkerchief over its mouth
and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs
I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep.
My first word, everyone’s  first word, was air.

According to Tony Ryan of University of Sheffield, who created it with his colleagues, the poster can absorb about 20 cars’ worth of nitrogen oxide a day and would add less than $200 to the cost of a giant advertisement. While it is a creative tool for promoting a local poetry festival, it also serves as proof of concept that the technology can be incorporated into practically any textile, and will be reproduced on several more banners and posters in the coming months.

hyper_filter1Hyper Filter Skyscraper: Designed by Umarov Alexey of Russia, the Hyper Filter Skyscraper recognizes the threat of environmental pollution and seeks to merge carbon capture technology with the building’s design. Under today’s levels of pollution, harmful substances spread over hundreds of kilometers and a whole region and even a country could represent a single pollution source. Hence the plan to place a air-scrubbing building at the heart of the problem – an urban core.

Consistent with CC technology and the principle of photosynthesis, the Hyper Filter Skyscraper is designed to inhale carbon dioxide and other harmful gases and exhale concentrated oxygen. The skin of the project is made out of long pipe filters that ensure the cleaning process. While clean air is released to the atmosphere, all the harmful substances are stored for use in the chemical industry for later use. These can include chemicals products, biofuels, and even manufactured goods.

CC_mexico-hospital-facade-horizontal-galleryManuel Gea González Hospital: Located in Mexico City, this hospital was unveiled last year. The building features a “smog-eating” façade that covers 2,500 square meters and has titanium dioxide coating that reacts with ambient ultraviolet light to neutralize elements of air pollution, breaking them down to less noxious compounds like water. This was Berlin-based Elegant Embellishment’s first full-scale installation, and its designers claim the façade negates the effects of 1,000 vehicles each day.

Funded by Mexico’s Ministry of Health, the project is part of a three-year, $20 billion investment into the country’s health infrastructure, an effort which earned Mexico the Air Quality Prize at the 2013 City Climate Leadership Awards in London. Considering the fact that Mexico City is <i>the</i> most densely-populated cities in the world – with a population of 21 million people and a concentration of 6,000/km2 (15,000/sq mi) – this should come as no surprise.

CC-pollution-palazzo-italia-horizontal-galleryPalazzo Italia: Located in Milan, this building is designed by the architectural firm Nemesi & Partners, and comes equipped with a jungle-inspired façade that is built from air-purifying, “biodynamic” cement. This shell will cover 13,000 square meters across six floors, and will remove pollutants from the air and turns them into inert salts. Apparently, the material from Italcementi only adds 4-5 percent to the construction costs.

Scientists in the Netherlands have also adapted the photocatalytic material to roads, claiming it can reduce nitrous oxide concentrations by 45 percent. The building is set to launch next year at the 2015 Milan Expo.

Propogate Skyscraper: This pollution skyscraper was designed by Canadian architects YuHao Liu and Rui Wu, and won third place at this year’s eVolo’s Skyscraper Competition. Basically, it envisions a building that would turn air pollution into construction materials and use it to gradually create the building. Relying on an alternative carbon-capture technique that employs philic resins and material processes to transform carbon dioxide into solid construction material, their uses carbon dioxide as a means to self-propagate.

3028400-slide-propagateA simple vertical grid scaffold forms the framework and takes all the ingredients it needs for material propagation from the surrounding environment. Individual living spaces are built within this gridwork, which creates open square spaces between lattices that can then be filled by tenements. Its pattern of growth is defined by environmental factors such as wind, weather, and the saturation of carbon dioxide within the immediate atmosphere.

Thus each building is a direct reflection of its environment, growing and adapting according to local conditions and cleaning as the air as it does so. Unlike conventional skyscrapers, which rely on steel frame and concrete casting, the proposed skyscraper suggests a more environmental conscious construction method, an alternative mode of occupation and ownership, and possibly a distinct organization of social relationships.

Synthesized Spider Web: Another innovative solution comes from Oxford’s Fritz Vollrath, who was inspired by the behavior of spider silk fibers. With the addition of a glue-like coating, the thinness and electrical charge of spider silk allows them to capture any airborne particles that pass through them. These synthesized silk webs could be used like a mesh to capture pollutants – including airborne particulates, chemicals, pesticides, or heavy metals – coming out of chimneys or even disaster zones.

Spiderweb_towersSpiderweb Tower: Considering that London has some of the worst air quality in Europe, and the fact that air pollution is thought to be the second biggest risk to public health in the UK after smoking, solutions that can bring carbon capture and pollution-eating technology to downtown areas are in serious demand. And one solution comes from graduate architect Chang-Yeob Lee, who has come up with a radical design that would turn London’s BT Tower into a pollution harvesting ‘spiderweb’ that turned smog into bio-fuel.

Lee’s plan envisions the skyscraper being covered in a ‘giant eco-catalytic converter’ that traps pollutants from the capital’s air. At the same time, nano-tubes of titanium would turn carbon-dioxide into methanol and water using only the power of the sun. As Lee put it:

The project is about a new infrastructure gathering resources from pollutants in the city atmosphere, which could be another valuable commodity in the age of depleting resources.

Quite a bit of potential, and just in the nick of time too! And be sure to watch this video


Sources: iflscience.com, wired.co.uk, cnn.com, evolo.com, latintimes.com, catalyticpoetry.org

Climate Crisis: Present Changes and Coming Impacts

climate-changeThis Tuesday, the Whitehouse received the latest draft of the Climate Assessment Report, a scientific study produced by the National Climate Assessment to determine the impacts of Climate Change. In addition to outlining the risks it poses to various regions in the US, the report also addresses the apparent increase in the number of severe weather events that have taken place in the past few years, and how these events affect local economies and communities.

According to the 840-page report, America is fast becoming a stormy and dangerous place, with rising seas and disasters effecting regions from flood-stricken Florida to the wildfire-ravaged West. The report concluded that Climate change’s assorted harms “are expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond.” It also emphasized how warming and its all-too-wild weather are changing daily lives, even using the phrase “climate disruption” as another way of saying global warming.

Climate_Change_vulnerability_USHenry Jacoby, co-director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the MIT, was joined by other scientists and White House officials when he claimed that this is the most detailed and U.S.-focused scientific report on global warming. Above all, the most chilling claim contained within is the fact that “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.”

The report also examined the effects at the regional and state-level, compared with recent reports from the UN that examined North America as a single case study. In a recent interview with CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Jacoby pointed to a range of impacts of global warming that people see everyday, from the change in the growing season, to extreme heat, severe Atlantic storms and drought in some areas.

climate_change_variableweatherAs he explained, these changes are far more than just variable weather:

If you look at what’s happening to the Arctic ice at your northern border, you are seeing changes to the ice like you haven’t seen in hundreds of years. We’re seeing change on a scale that’s going beyond variability.

A draft of the report was released in January 2013, but this version has been reviewed by more scientists, the National Academy of Science, 13 other government agencies, and was subject to public comment. It is written in a bit more simple language so people could realize “that there’s a new source of risk in their lives,” said study lead author Gary Yohe of Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Even though the nation’s average temperature has risen by as much as 1.9 degrees since record keeping began in 1895, it’s in the big, wild weather where the average person feels climate change the most. As the report’s co-author Katharine Hayhoe – a Texas Tech University climate scientist – put it, extreme weather like droughts, storms and heat waves hit us in the pocketbooks and can be seen by our own eyes. And it’s happening a lot more often lately.

climate_change_precipThe report says the intensity, frequency and duration of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes have increased since the early 1980s. Winter storms have increased in frequency and intensity and shifted northward since the 1950s, with heavy downpours increasing by 71 per cent in the northeast alone. Heat waves are projected to intensify nationwide, with droughts in the southwest expected to get stronger. Sea levels have risen 20 centimetres since 1880 and are projected to rise between 0.3 meters and 1.2 metres by 2100.

The report was also clear that the 2010’s have been a record-setting decade. For example, since January 2010, 43 of the lower 48 states have set at least one monthly record for heat, such as California having its warmest January on record this year. In the past 51 months, states have set 80 monthly records for heat, 33 records for being too wet, 12 for lack of rain and just three for cold, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal weather records.

climate_change_tempsAs she described it, America is basically in a boxing match, and is currently on the ropes:

We’re being hit hard. We’re holding steady, and we’re getting hit in the jaw. We’re starting to recover from one punch, and another punch comes.

John Podesta, an adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Monday that the report includes “a huge amount of practical, usable knowledge that state and local decision-makers can take advantage of.” The report also stressed that climate change threatens human health and well-being in a number of ways. Those include smoke-filled air from more wildfires, smoggy air from pollution, more diseases from tainted food, water, mosquitoes and ticks.

climate_change_lossAnd then there’s more pollen because of warming weather and the effects of carbon dioxide on plants. Ragweed pollen season has lengthened by 24 days in the Minnesota-North Dakota region between 1995 and 2011, the report says. In other parts of the Midwest, the pollen season has gotten longer by anywhere from 11 days to 20 days. And all of this has associated costs, not the least of which is in damages, insurance costs, and health care expenses.

Flooding alone may cost $325 billion by the year 2100 in one of the worst-case scenarios, with $130 billion of that in Florida, the report says. Already the droughts and heat waves of 2011 and 2012 added about $10 billion to farm costs, the report says. Billion-dollar weather disasters have hit everywhere across the nation, but have hit Texas, Oklahoma and the southeast most often, the report says. And there is the impact on agricultural producers, which is also stressed:

Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington state and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience.

Climate_Change_vulnerability1Still, it’s not too late to prevent the worst of climate change, says the 840-page report, which the White House is highlighting as it tries to jump-start often stalled efforts to curb heat-trapping gases. However, if the U.S. and the world don’t change the way they use energy, the current effects will continue to intensify to the point where property damage, wildfires, storms, flooding and agricultural collapse will become untenable.

Already, the report has its detractors, many of whom appeared together for a Special Report segment on Fox News. In addition to commentator George Will questioning the scientific consensus – which accounts for 97% of the scientific community – Charles Krauthammer compared to the findings to a bargaining process, and ultimately condemned it as “superstition”. As he put it:

What we’re ultimately talking about here is human sin, through the production of carbon. It’s the oldest superstition around. It was in the Old Testament. It’s in the rain dance of the Native Americans. If you sin, the skies will not cooperate. This is quite superstitious and I’m waiting for science that doesn’t declare itself definitive but is otherwise convincing.

climate_change_denialNot to belabor the point, but superstition is what happens when people trust in rituals and practices that have no discernible effect whatsoever on a problem to protect themselves from said problem. Conducting research, performing field studies, and compiling statistics that cover hundreds, thousands, and even millions of years – this is called the scientific method. And Krauthammer would do well to realize that it is this same method that has done away with countless superstitious rituals throughout history.

He and other so-called skeptics (though a more accurate term is deniers) would also do well to understand the difference between superstition and a little thing known as cause and effect. For example, avoiding black cats, not walking under ladders, or sacrificing human beings to make the sun rise or the crops grow is superstition. Pumping thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the air, which is known to have the effect of absorbing the sun’s thermal energy (aka. radiant forcing), is cause and effect.

See? Easily distinguished. But if there’s one thing that the “denial machine” has shown an affinity for, its remaining divorced from the scientific consensus. Luckily, they have been in full-retreat for some time, leaving only the most die hard behind to fight their battles. One can only hope their influence continues to diminish as time goes on and the problems associated with Climate Change get worse.

You can read the  full Climate Assessment Report here.

Sources: cbc.ca, abcnews.go.com, IO9.com, (2), nca2014.globalchange.gov

The Future of Transit: The Solar-Powered Jetliner

skywhale1Solar-powered airplanes have already proven feasible, but only in the sense of single-seat, turboprop powered plane.s When it comes to a long-range, commercial jet aircraft, the field remains pretty sparse so far. But thanks to a Spanish designer, and some unconventional thinking, “whale planes” that are eco-friendly and combine the convenience of air travel with the luxury of a cruise ship might soon be a reality.

Oscar Viñals, from Barcelona, envisioned the “AWWA Sky Whale” concept plane as a mixture of today’s current designs and future concepts that don’t yet exist. The end result is like an Airbus A380, but with considerable expansion and designed to be powered by micro solar panels and four large hybrid electric engines that would rotate to ease takeoff and landing.

skywhale_specsIn addition to reducing noise and pollutants, it would also significantly reduce fuel burned during what is currently one of the least green modes of getting to a destination. Despite the introduction of more fuel-efficient and less polluting turbofan and turboprop engines, the rapid growth of air travel in recent years has contributed to increasing CO2 emissions in the upper atmosphere.

In fact, in the European Union alone, greenhouse gas emissions from aviation increased by a total of 87% between 1990 and 2006. In 2005, global aviation contributed roughly 5% to the overall “radiative forcing” effect that our annual emissions of CO2 have on Global Warning, but the added effects of water vapor and the disruption to cirrus cloud formations also enhances this role to a varying degree.

skywhale4One of the reasons aviation’s role in Climate Change is overlooked is because the focus tends to be on urban infrastructure and automobiles, which account for the vast majority of carbon emissions. But given the current trend of increasing travel, international economic development, and growth in tourist industries, aviation is likely to get a bigger slice of that pie down the road and clearer methods need to be devised.

Hence the concept for the Sky Whale, which Viñals imagines would come with other futuristic components . These include a self-healing skin with adaptable opacity, active wings that change shape as needed, and ceramic and fiber composite materials. He even has a plan for the plane to break apart on an emergency landing, with the wings separating from the fuselage to limit damage to the passenger compartment.

skywhale3The three-story aircraft, which could accomodate 755 passengers, would have a wingspan and height greater than any of today’s biggest carriers – 88 meters in comparison to the 80 meters on an Airbus A380-900 – making it the largest commercial aircraft in existence. However, the combination of active wings (which would also reduce drag) and the hybrid-electric systems would render it the most fuel efficient.

Another thing that Viñals imagines would make it into the design is virtual reality windows – aka. display glass that allows people to go online, watch movies, and experience in-flight entertainment simply by looking outside. Can’t imagine why this would be necessary, as the range of personal devices people are likely to have by this time ought to be entertainment enough. And failing that, the view should be enough to inspire!

skywhale5Naturally, much of this technology – particularly the healing smartskin – is still many years away. But judging by the reaction to his designs, there is definitely some hunger for innovation in how we fly. Given the range of ideas for mass transit (like the Hyperloop, podcars, etc.) and personal transit (robot cars, robotaxis), it’s only a matter of time before the way we fly becomes smarter, sleeker, and cleaner.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, cnn.com, gov.uk, europa.eu

Climate Crisis: The Smog Vacuum

china smog 2013 TV bldgIn recent years, strategies aimed at combating Climate Change have evolved to become a two-pronged attack. In addition to finding ways to reduce how much we pollute, a number of methods are being devised to deal with the pollution we have already created. And one such device is being deployed to where it is needed the most: Beijing.

For many years now, China’s capitol has been notorious for its poor air quality. But last Tuesday, in the northeast city of Harbin, roads, schools and even the local airport were closed for two days straight due to a thick, choking haze that was due to unseasonably warm temperatures and very little wind coinciding with the smoke from local farmer’s burning straw and the initiation of Harbin’s coal-powered municipal heating system.

https://i2.wp.com/beijingcream.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Harbin-smog-5.jpgThe resulting haze measured 1000 micrograms per cubic meter. That’s three times the concentration deemed hazardous by the World Health Organization, and many dozen times what is considered safe. To remedy the situation, city authorities are now coordinating with Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde to launch what he calls an “electronic vacuum cleaner” to suck up 50 meter-high cylinders of polluted air.

Two weeks ago, Roosegarde successfully demonstrated his smog machine in a 25 square meter room, in which he used an electrostatic field from copper coils to magnetize and pull down pollution from the air above. The effect could be replicated, he says, if those coils were deployed in public spaces. Now, Roosegaarde is working with Bop Ursem, a professor at the Technical University of Delft, to scale up the technology in Beijing.

https://i1.wp.com/cdni.wired.co.uk/620x413/k_n/Lidi%20en%20Daan%20-%20testing%20smog.jpgRoosegaarde has had experience working with electrostatic fields in the past. Last year, he proposed using electromagnetic charging strips to charge cars on “smart,” communication-enabled highways, which won the designer an INDEX award in 2013. He also claims the project is safe, “pacemaker proof”, and really no different than the waves of WiFi downtown areas are already inundated with.

In addition, electrostatic air filtering is already used on a much smaller scale, in hospitals where clean air is a matter of hygiene and sanitation. But part of Roosegaarde’s challenge will be creating a clean 50-by-50 meter space, controlling for factors like wind. He also concedes that his smog machine won’t solve the problem of all of Beijing’s pollution, but is meant to serve as an awareness-raising exercise.

https://i2.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02709/harbin2_2709592b.jpgAs for the resulting particles that are collected from the air, Roosegaarde believes they could be refashioned into useable products, such as jewelry. But as he himself put it, the concept is about dealing with a serious problem in a practical, new way:

I think it’s quite feasible in a weird way. Every project has its beauty and bullshit, so to speak. Of course you’ll have influences like wind, how high is the smog, but these are the pragmatics. In principle, this is doable… It is a statement to show [that] this is the new world, why do we accept the old world? In a world which is changing, it’s all about finding the missing links between imagination and innovation, between science and art.

Given the historic problem of smog in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, London, and Southeast Asia, the concept is likely to catch on. While it is primarily intended on removing harmful particulates, like heavy metals and toxic chemicals, it stands to reason that such devices will be paired with Carbon Capture technology to ensure that all harmful pollutants are scrubbed for our cities air.

trafficReducing the amount of pollution we have to contend with while making sure we generate less. At this point in the game, it’s the only way the worst effects of Climate Change will be avoided in the coming decades. Stay tuned!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, cnn.com

Towards a Cleaner Future: The Cactus-Inspired Oil Skin

???Oil spills are a very difficult problem. In addition to being catastrophic to the local environment, they are also incredibly difficult to clean up. After a spill occurs, some always stays on the surface while the rest forms heavy droplets and sink downwards, either becoming suspended in the water or falling to the bottom. Getting at these bits of the slick is difficult, and current methods are neither cost effective nor environmentally friendly themselves.

For example, the containment booms and chemical dispersants that BP used after the Deepwater Horizon spill were highly ineffective, as anyone who followed the news of the spill will recall. Because of that disaster, and others besides, numerous solutions have been proposed to deal with spills in the future – ranging from filters, to tiny submarines, and oil-eating bacteria.

artificial_cactusBut most recently, a group of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have suggested a nature-inspired solution. Their concept calls for droplet-collecting “skins” modeled after cactus plants. In the desert, these pants collect moisture when condensation covers the tips of their spines and then falls under its own weight to the base and gets absorbed by the plant.

Working from this, the Chinese researchers created their own “cactus skin” – artificial cone-shaped needles made of copper and coated in silicone that. When submerged in water, the half-millimeter spikes draw down oil droplets and collect them at the bottom. According to the researchers, the method is good for 99% of oil-water mixes and works with several types of oil.

chinese_academy_of_scienceThe research appeared in the latest issue of the journal Nature Communications. According to the paper:

Underwater, these structures mimic cacti and can capture micron-sized oil droplets and continuously transport them towards the base of the conical needles. Materials with this structure show obvious advantages in micron-sized oil collection with high continuity and high throughput.

The researchers think the device could also be used in the open air to remove fine droplets released with sprays. This way, they would be able to neutralize a good portion of oil released by malfunctioning rigs before it began polluting our oceans and waterways. On top of that, research at the Academy, specifically in the Institute of Chemistry, has revealed that this same concept might provide a solution to the problem of city pollution.

Between all of this, we could be seeing artificial cactuses in city environments very soon. Just not as potted plants and in the desert! And it does say much about our biomimetic future, where we are becoming increasingly dependent on solutions born of nature to solve our environmental problems.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, inhabitat.com, scmp.com

The Future is Here: The Smog-Eating Building

pollution_eatingbuildingFor many years now, urban planners and architects have been looking for ways to merge the concept of carbon capture and building designs to combat airborne pollutions in cities. With global temperatures climbing, CO2 levels reaching 400 parts per million in the upper atmosphere, urban air quality indexes as high as 700, and the ensuing health problems that come with it, its clear something must be done.

Mexico City is no stranger to air pollution, being one of the most heavily and densely populated cities in the world. According to researchers from the University of Salzburg, Mexico City has high concentrations of nearly every major harmful airborne pollutant – including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide – but by far the worst problem is the massive cloud of smog that hangs over it almost every day.

pollution_eating2Little wonder then why the Berlin-based design firm Elegant Embellishments was hired to create the cities first pollution-eating edifice. Known as the Torre de Especialidades, a tower which surrounds an existing hospital, the building is shielded with a facade of Prosolve370e, a new type of tile whose special shape and chemical coating can help neutralize the chemicals that compose smog.

Impressively, the 100m facade removes enough smog to compensate for the emissions of 8,750 cars driving a day. And the process is both simple and twofold: the paint applied to the tiles is made from titanium dioxide, a pigment used to make things like sunscreen white that happens to double as a catalyst in certain chemical reactions. When UV light cuts through smoggy air and hits the titanium dioxide on the tiles, a chemical reaction occurs between the tiles and chemicals in the smog – like mono-nitrogen oxides.

pollution_eating1The end result of the reaction is that the smog is broken down into small amounts of less noxious chemicals, including calcium nitrate (a salt used in fertilizers), carbon dioxide, and water. The titanium dioxide itself remains unaffected, so it can keep making reactions happen. But beyond the chemical process is the design itself, which is especially important.

As Elegant Embellishments co-founder Allison Dring explains:

The shapes slow wind speeds and create turbulence, for better distribution of pollutants across the active surfaces. The omni-directionality of the quasicrystalline geometry is especially suitable to catch things from all directions.

So, the shape of the tile scatters more light and collects more pollutants, which means more chemical reactions. But they’re also beautiful, a strategic decision by Elegant Embellishments to attach the technology the an aesthetic that is immediately evident and accessible to the public. In addition to doing something about the problem, explains Dring, the design acts as a beacon for change.

Source: fastcoexist.com, prosolve.elegantembellishments.net