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


The Future of Currency: Bitcoin Hitting the Streets

bitcoinFor those familiar with digital currencies, the name Bitcoin ought to ring a bell. Developed back in 2009, this “cryptocurrency” – i.e. it uses cryptography to control the creation and transfer of money – was created as a form of online payment for products and services. Since that time, it has become the subject of scrutiny, legislative bans, volatile pricing, and a hailed as a hardinger of the coming age of “distributed currency”.

Unlike precious metals or more traditional forms of currency, which hold value because they are backed by a country or are used to manufacture goods, Bitcoin is only buoyed by market demand. There are only 12.3 million virtual Bitcoins in circulation and those “coins” are traded through a Peer-to-Peer computer network, much as people used to share music files.

bitcoin1What’s especially interesting is the fact that the creator of this new form of currency remains unknown. It is assumed that it originated with a programer from Japan, due to the fact that its first mention came in a 2008 paper published under the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto”. It became operational roughly a year later with the release of the first open source Bitcoin client and the issuance of the first physical bitcoin.

And in an interesting and personally-relevant development, it now seems that a Bitcoin ATM is coming to my old hometown of Ottawa. In this respect, the nation’s capitol is joining other major cities around the globe as municipalities that dispense the crypto currency, in spite of the fact that it is still not recognized by any national banking institutions, or financial regulating bodies.

future_money_bitcoinWhat’s more, the publicly-traded cryptocurrency has seen its stock go through repeated highs and lows over the past few years, being subject to both bubbles and price drops as countries like India and China prohibited its use. But with these machines hitting the streets, a trend which began back in November with the distribution of Robocoin ATMs, there is speculation that the digital currency might just be here to stay.

Part of the appeal of cryptocurrencies is that they allow for anonymity, hence why bitcoin has been linked to a number of illegal activities, such as on the shuttered drug marketplace Silk Road. And because its value is strictly tied to speculators, and not backed by any tangible measure or authority, speculators are able to ratchet up demand and push the stock value higher.

future_money2But Bitcoin is also starting to be accepted as a mainstream form of payment for U.S.-centric sites like OkCupid and WordPress. And back in October of 2013, China’s web giant Baidu accounced that it would start accepting Bitcoin payments for a firewall security service it sells. And though the Chinese government put the brakes on Bitcoin exchanges by December, the number of mainstream institutions opening up its coffers to it is growing.

These include Richard Branson’s private space tourism company Virgin Galactic, the Sacramento Kings, the e-commerce giant Paypal, and, a major online retailer. And popular use is also growing, as evidenced by the visualization below which shows downloads of bitcoin client software since 2008, broken down by different operating systems.

bitcoin_globalWhat the graphic shows is quite indicative. All over the world, particularly in developed countries and areas of economic growth – the Eastern US, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, Australia and Southeast Asia – the Bitcoin software is being downloaded and used to oversee online exchanges in good and services.

And ultimately, those who believe in the service and choose to invest in it are doing so based on the promise that it will someday streamline monetary transactions and free the world from the financial manipulation of big government and big banks, breakdown the financial walls between nations, and remake the worldwide economy. In short, it will breakdown centralized economies and allow a “distributed economy” to takes its place.

bitcoin_popmapAdmittedly, the service is still flawed in a number of respects. For example, people who chose to collect bitcoins in the past were dissuaded from spending them since their value kept going up. The problem is, if economic incentives encourage people to hoard their bitcoins rather than spend them, the currency will never fulfill its role as the future of money.

Another problem is the one arising from the currency’s “deflationary nature”. Because the system was designed to allow the creation of only a finite number of bitcoins, there will come a point where, as demand rises, the value of the currency will only go up (making the price of goods and services fall, hence the term deflation). And that could lead to hoarding on an even larger scale.

bitcoin-atm-flagshipBut according to many economists who have closely followed the progress of the digital money, Bitcoin’s recent ups and downs are to be expected from a currency so young, and one that is just now attracting major attention from the mainstream population. The bottom could fall out of the market, but the currency could just as easily stabilize and reach a point where its value is consistent enough that people no longer hoard the stuff.

So at this point, its difficult to say what the future will hold for the new miracle money known as Bitcoin. But when it comes to cryptocurrencies in general, time seems to be on their side. Ever since the Internet Revolution took off, the possibilities for creating a new, de-centralized world order – research, development, politics and business are open and inclusive in ways like never before – has been emerging.


Climate Crisis: Population Growth in Coming Years

trafficWhen it comes to populations and environmental problems, cities are at the very heart of the issue. Not only are they where the majority of humanity lives, a reality which will only get worse as time goes on, they are also the source of most of our pollution, waste, and land use. People require space to live and work, as well as food, water and

Last year, the world’s population increased to 7 billion, which represents a seven-fold increase in the space of the last two centuries. What’s more, the proportion of people living in urban centers (as opposed to rural) shot up from 3% to almost half of the world’s people. This rate of population growth and redistribution is unprecedented, and is not likely to slow down anytime soon.

urbanworld_50Consider the following series of infographics which were released by Unicef with the help of the design studio Periscopic. Titled “An Urban World”, they illustrate the issues of population growth and distribution. This interactive, HTML5 visualization of the world covers the years of 1950-2050. But rather than showing our geographic boundaries, every country* is depicted only by their population living in urban environments.

As you can see, each country is represented by a circle that depicts the number of people living in urban environments. As these populations grow, the circles get bigger. And as urban populations get more dense, the circles shift from green to blue to yellow to fuchsia. Immediately, a glaring fact is made clear: the problem is getting worse and at an alarming rate.

urbanworld_2000In addition, there are several nuggets of info which are staggering and particularly worrisome. For example, by 2050, both China and India will have about a billion people living in cities alone. In addition, since the 1990s, more than 75% of the U.S. population has lived in cities. At one time, the US was an outlier in this regard, but found ourselves joined over the next two decades by France, Spain, the U.K., Mexico, Korea, Australia, and Brazil.

But of course, this growth need not be a bad thing. When all is said and done, humanity has a choice. One the one hand, these megacities can take the form of smartly scaled communities of loosely populated expanses and efficient agriculture. On the other, they could easily take the form of urban slums and underdeveloped countrysides that are stricken by poverty and filthy.

urbanworld_2050It’s a complex issue, no doubt about it, especially when you consider the flip side to the whole equation. As the saying goes, every new life means a new mouth to feed, but also a pair of working hands. What’s more, studies have shown that people living in cities tend to be far more energy efficient, and that energy surplus is usually directed toward more and more technological growth and innovation.

Seen in this light, the massive cities of the future could be hubs for the ongoing development of new energies and creative living solutions. And with more people living in large, connected, interdependent environments, the more business startups, ideas, and contributions were likely to get. Part of the reason we have seen so much progress in solar, piezoelectric motors, and bio-electricity is because of this trend. More growth will conversely mean more clean energy.

overpopulation Quite the paradox, really. Who knew people could be both the cause and solution to the world’s worst problem! In the meantime, feel free to head on over to the Unicef site and watch this interactive infographic. Just press play, and watch the cities of the world swell at the edges, competing for room on the page as they compete for room on this planet.

Also, be sure to take a gander at this infographic from BBC Future that demonstrates the current population of the world’s major cities per square meter, the projected population per square meter by 2050, and the livability rating of the city in question. They even provide some context at the bottom by showing the size of relative spaces – from prison cells to Olympic swimming pools, and comparing that to the average space an urban dweller enjoys.