For 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.
Little 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.
The 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.