Climate Crisis: China’s Pollution-Eating Skyscrapers

phoenix-towers-worlds-tallest-wuhan-china-designboom-01 Though it is already home to the world’s largest building – in the form of the New Century Global Center in Chendu – China is seeking to create the world’s tallest structure as well. Designed by UK-based Chetwoods Architects and known as the Phoenix Towers, this tower concept is slated to be built in Wuhan, Central China. But equally impressive is the fact that this building will be suck pollution out of the air and water and will host more than the usual building features.

The larger of the two towers reaches a total of 1000 meters (3,280 ft) in height – beating the Burj Khalifa by 170 meters (558 ft) – and sports an ambitious list of sustainable technology. The towers cover 7 hectares (17 acres) of ground on a 47-hectare (116-acre) plot that sits upon an island in a lake. In an attempt to make the design of the towers more relevant to Chinese culture, Chetwoods drew upon the Fenghuang (or Chinese Phoenix) mythological bird and designated the larger tower Feng (male), and the smaller tower Huang (female).

phoenix_towers_chetwoods-2The designers hope the building will serve as a catalyst for more sustainable design in the industrial city. Laurie Chetwood, chairman of U.K.-based Chetwoods, the architects on the project explained how the building’s water-cleaning features work:

The water goes up through a series of filters. We don’t use power to pull the water up, we’re using passive energy. As it goes through the filters and back, we’re also putting air back into the lake to make it healthier… Wuhan is an unusual city, dotted with huge lakes. Protecting the lakes could lead to other projects that protect them even more.

The towers also have pollution-absorbing coatings to help clean the air, vertical gardens that filter more pollution, and a chimney in the middle of the larger tower naturally pulls air across the lake for better ventilation. For the sake of generating energy, the building relies on a combination of wind turbines, lightweight solar cladding, and hydrogen fuel cells running on the buildings’ waste, giving it energy independence and even having enough left over for the local community.

phoenix_towers_chetwoods-4Inspired by the Chinese symbols of the phoenix, and the concept of yin and yang, one tower feeds the other with renewable power in a symbiotic relationship. Spheres hanging between the two towers will also hold restaurants with views of the lake. Pending approval by the city’s mayor, construction may begin by the end of the year and could be completed by 2017 or 2018, a pace that the architects say would be unlikely in other countries.

According to Chetwood, construction in China obeys a different set of rules and parameters than his native Britain:

The most amazing thing for me is that in the U.K. we strive as designers to get things built, and there’s a lot of red tape, but the Chinese seem to have a different view of things. I think they’re incredibly optimistic. If you have an idea and you think, ‘Oh, is this going to be too exciting’, they’ll actually want it more exciting. It’s more ambitious. They’re quite keen to push the boundaries. For a designer, that’s fantastic. It’s a thrill.

Whereas the sheer size of the buildings is reflective of China’s aim to assert its national authority on the world stage, it’s focus on pollution-eating and green energy is reflective of the desire to create living spaces in a sustainable way. And it is one of many building concepts being considered by Chinese authorities that seeks to address pollution by achieve energy independence, while at the same time being part of the solution by incorporating pollution-eating features.

shanghai_towerFor instance, there’s China’s Shanghai Tower, which finished construction in August of last year. This building is currently the tallest tower in China, is one-third green space and a transparent second skin that surrounds the city in a protective air envelope that controls its internal temperature. In addition, vertical-axis wind turbines located near the top of the tower and geothermal vents located at the bottom will generate 350,000 kWh of supplementary electricity per year.

And then there’s Sky City, a building under construction (though currently on hold) in Changsha, Hunan province. Designed by Broad Sustainable Building, this 666m meter (2,185 ft) skyscraper incorporates numerous sustainable building features. These include modular design, recycled building materials, non-toxic building materials, insulated walls and quadruple glazing. Beyond China, there is also the Pertamina Energy Tower in Jakarta, which relies on geothermal, solar, and wind turbines to act as the very picture of energy independence.

Together, these concepts (and many others currently under consideration) represent the future of urban planning and architecture. In addition to being assembled with recycled material, fabricated using less wasteful methods (like 3-D printing), and seeing to their own energy needs in a clean and sustainable way, they will also incorporate carbon capture, air and water cleaning technology that will make urban environments healthier places to live.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, designboom.com, gizmag.com

Powered by the Sun: Solar Buildings and Wind Towers

Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun - August 31In our ongoing drive to find ways to meet energy demands in a clean and sustainable way, solar power is the clearly the top contender. While inroads have certainly been made in terms of fusion technology, the clean, abundant, and renewable power that can be derived from our sun seems to hold the most promise. In addition to the ever-decreasing costs associated with the manufacture and installation of solar cells, new applications that are appearing all the time that allow for greater usage and efficiency.

Consider the following example that comes from Seoul, Korea, where Hanwa – the largest solar company in the world – has chosen to retrofit its aging headquarters with a solar facade that will provide both for the buildings needs and cut down on energy costs. Having been built in the 1980’s, the Hanwa building is part of a global problem. High-rise buildings suck up around 16% of the world’s energy, and most were built to specifications that do not include sustainability or self-sufficiency.

solar_skyscraper3Even though the most recently-built skyscrapers are helping change things by employing renewable energy and sustainable methods – like the Pertamina Energy Tower in Jakarta –  that still leaves tens of thousands of inefficient giant buildings on the ground. And rather than tear them down and erect new buildings in their place, which would be very wasteful and inefficient, it is possible to convert these buildings into something cleaner and less reliant on other external sources of electricity.

Basically, the plan calls for plastering the 29-story building with three-hundred new solar panels. These will be placed on the sunniest spots to harvest energy, and other strategically placed panels will automatically adjust to help keep the interior cool but bright with natural light. New high-performance windows will save more energy. In total, though the final details are still in progress, the retrofit may save well over a million kilowatt-hours of electricity each year.

solar_skyscraper2In theory, say designers from Amsterdam-based UNStudio, this type of facade could be added onto any skyscraper. As the researcher explains:

It would be the principles that could be applied of course and not the design, as every building has its own context, program, size, view corridors, orientation etc. which would affect the design parameters differently. Each building would be unique and would require a tailored approach.

Retrofitting old skyscrapers is an important way for cities to fight climate change, say engineers from ARUP, which worked with UNStudio on optimizing the design. And it’s usually a better solution than building something brand new. Accroding to Vincent Cheng, who led the project from ARUP’s Hong Kong studio, retrofitting is a better option for old skycrapers, both in “terms of reducing embodied carbon emission and waste elimination.”

solar_downdraft_towerAt the other end of things, there are the ongoing efforts to expand solar power production to the point that it will supersede coal, hydro, and nuclear in terms of electrical generation. And that’s the idea behind the Solar Downdraft Tower, a proposed installation some 686 meters (2,250 feet) in height with 120 huge turbines and enough pumping capacity to keep more than 2.5 billion gallons of water circulating. In terms of output, it would generate the equivalent of wind turbines spread over 100,000 acres, or as big as the Hoover Dam.

The process is quite simple: water is sprayed at the top, causing hot air to become heavy and fall through the tower. By the time it reaches the bottom, it’s reaching speeds of up to 80 km (50 miles) per hour, which is ideal for running the turbines. The immediate advantage over standard solar and wind energy is the plant runs continuously, day and night. This addresses the issue of intermittency, which remains a problem with solar and wind generation.

solar_downdraft_tower2Basically, solar and wind farms cannot provide if the weather is not cooperating, or if the solar cells become covered in dust or sand. But as long as the local environment remains warm enough – a near certainty in the deserts of Arizona – the tower will continue to produce power. Best of all, the plant itself runs under its own generated energy – with approx. 11% of the output being used to power the pumps – and aboutt three-quarters of the water is collected at the bottom.

According to Ron Pickett, CEO of Solar Wind Energy Tower (the Maryland company behind the design):

This is totally clean energy that actually makes money. It makes energy at a cost comparable to if you were using natural gas to power a plant.

The simplicity of the technology is also a major selling point. For more than a century, people have been working on variants of solar wind towers. In the 1980s, engineers in Spain built a 195 meter (640-foot) test tower that pushed air upwards through turbines and generated power for seven years until it fell over in a storm. The tougher issue is the enormous expense, which is an inevitable result of building something so big. According to Picket, the Arizona project is likely to cost as much as $1.5 billion to build.

solar_downdraft_tower1However, Solar Wind Energy recently jumped two hurdles to getting the tower realized. First, it won a development rights agreement from San Luis, a city on the Mexico border, that included a deal with the local utility to purchase power, and the rights to the 2.5 billion gallons of water necessary to the project. It also reached an agreeing with National Standard Finance, an infrastructure fund, for preliminary funding that will begin to pay for generating equipment and related costs.

Solar Wind Energy also has plans to see similar towers build in Chile, India, and the Middle East, places that are also well suited to turn warm air temperatures into electrical power. And they are hardly alone in looking for ways to turn solar power into abundant electricity in ways that are technically very simple. As the 2010s roll on, we can expect to see more and more examples of this as renewables make their way into the mainstream.

In the meantime, check out this video from Solar Wind Energy that details how their Tower concept works:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, (2)

The Future is Here: Wind Drones and Clean Buildings

wind_powerIt’s no secret that wind power is one of main clean forms of energy that is being considered as a viable alternative to coal, oil and gas. But much like solar, tidal and geothermal, the method has some flaws that is preventing it from being adopted in a more widespread fashion. However, as an infinitely renewable source of energy, it likely just a matter of time before technical developments lead to its wholesale use.

The first challenge has to do with size. Currently, wind farms are massive operations, and many designers think they need to continue to get bigger in order to generate the kinds of electricity we currently need. However, a Netherlands-based startup named Ampyx Power is looking in another direction: an airborne wind turbine that they think could capture the same amount of energy as a large operation.

ampyx-power-powerplane-6-topview-1Basically, their design is a small glider plane attached by cable to a generator, which is then deployed into the air and flies in figure eights. As it moves, the glider pulls on the capable, and the generator converts the movement to electricity. Since it isn’t attached to a tower, it can soar nearly 2,000 feet in the air, catching stronger winds that produce about eight times more energy than the lower-altitude breezes that reach a normal wind turbine.

So in addition to being able to produce more power than a typical wind farm, it costs significantly less than its competitor. The average wind farm weighs about 120 metric tons, while the glider system weighs in at a mere 363 kilograms (800 pounds). And in addition to being cheaper than other renewables, the process may even be cheaper than coal.

wind-power-660As Wolbert Allaart, the startup’s managing director, put it:

We’re replacing tons of steel and concrete. It’s a huge materials reduction, and we can produce the same amount of power. That obviously has an effect on cost as well… The whole reason why we’re doing this is because we think we can get the cost of a kilowatt-hour well below the price of coal.

And Ampyx is hardly alone in developing the technology. In fact, their design is similar to California-based Makani Power’s glider. This company was acquired by Google earlier this year, while Ampyx raised the necessary capital via a crowdfunding campaign. And though there are some differences in the design and methods employed, both companies dream of a day when wind will replace coal and other dirty means.

ampyx-power1Because the planes are so efficient, places that might not have worked for wind power in the past – like forests, where trees catch and redirect the wind – could be a fit for the system, so the market is wide open. And given his country’s growing interest in wind power, Allaart hopes to introduce it to the domestic market very soon:

In Holland, where we’re based, we now have a 4.3 billion Euro subsidy scheme for offshore wind. People are starting to wonder already, if we have a technology being developed in our own country that could provide offshore wind at more or less competitive price with coal, why on Earth are we still subsidizing this so heavily? How fast this grows will depend on political will.

pertamina-energy-tower4site-aerialsomAnother very cool wind-related story comes from Jakarta, where a massive tower is being planned that will be capable of generating all its own power. It’s known as the Pertamina Energy Tower, the proposed headquarters of the Pertamina power company. And while the proposed building will be 99 stories in height, it will also gather all its power from wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

When it comes to its wind operations, the building’s height plays to its advantage. At the top of the building, a funnel captures wind, sucks it inside, and speeds it up to run a series of vertical wind turbines. In this respect, the building operates like a giant, vertical wind tunnel. Solar energy will also be incorporated through panels that will cover the roofs of other buildings on the new campus.

pertamina-energy-tower2energy-ribbonsomBut perhaps the most impressive feat comes in the form of geothermal, a type of energy that’s uniquely suited for Indonesia because it’s a volcanic island chain. Geothermal systems in Indonesia can tap directly into superheated sources of subterranean steam with a single pipe, unlike typical systems that are more complicated and expensive to engineer.

Scott Duncan, the director of Pertamina’s architecture firm – Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) – who led the project, describes it this way:

It would essentially provide an unlimited energy source for the tower and campus and could make the tower the world’s first energy-positive supertall building.

pertamina-energy-tower6In addition to meeting this clean-energy trifecta, the design of the tower is focused on saving energy as much generating it. Sun-shading “leaves” on two sides of the building cut glare and shade the brightest sunlight while still keeping the inside of the offices bright enough to avoid most artificial lighting. Instead of power-sucking air conditioners, the building uses water-based radiant cooling systems to keep the temperatures even.

Along with other strategies, the energy-saving design elements mean that the campus – which will include a mosque, a performing arts and exhibition center, and sports facilities along with the office space – can keep energy use low enough that renewable power may be able to cover its entire energy needs. In short, the building could prove to be a model of energy-independence.

pertamina-energy-tower5However, the motivation for this project go beyond the altruistic, and involve a good many practical considerations. For starters, Jakarta still has an unreliable power grid, and if the campus generates its own power, work and play won’t get interrupted. The buildings also won’t have to rely on diesel fuel generators if the city’s power goes down.

The technology is expected to be adopted elsewhere, particularly China where wind power is expanding all the time. Indonesia, despite its easy access to geothermal energy, is not the windiest place in the world. Cities that are strategically located along coastlines or in elevated regions would find the wind tunnel feature that much more useful, reducing their dependence on the other two forms of energy.

shanghai_towerWhat’s more, this building is in many respects what one would call an Arcology, and just happens to be the second one being planned for construction in the world today. The other, un-coincidentally enough, is China’s Shanghai Tower, a building that is one-third green space and a transparent second skin that surrounds the city in a protective air envelope that controls its internal temperature.

And with global energy prices increasing, the sources of easily-accessible oil disappearing, and atmospheric CO2 levels steadily rising, we can expect to see more buildings like these ones going up all around the world. We’re also likely to see more creative and innovative forms of power generation popping up in our backyards. Much like peak oil, centralized grids and dependence on unclean energy is disappearing…

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the Ampyx Power glider in action:


Sources:
fastcoexist, (2)