Can a ‘Smog Vacuum’ Fix Beijing’s Air?

It’s a limited-scope project, but its inventor thinks it can inspire large-scale change.

Daan Roosegaarde wants to start punching holes in Beijing's smog.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Nov. 6, 2013, midnight

It’s fit­ting that the best im­me­di­ate hope for Beijing’s smog prob­lem comes from a Dutch artist. For Daan Roose­gaarde, “land­scape hack­ing” isn’t a fu­tur­ist­ic concept. “[In] the Neth­er­lands, we live un­der sea level, so our whole land is in a way man- or wo­man-made,” Roose­gaarde said. “Be­cause of wa­ter tech­no­logy, we sur­vive. So this re­la­tion­ship between the nat­ur­al and the cul­tur­al has al­ways been in our DNA.”

Roose­gaarde is the in­vent­or of the “smog va­cu­um,” which cre­ates an elec­tro­stat­ic field that mag­net­izes smog and pulls it out of the air. The sys­tem op­er­ates on un­der­ground cop­per coils, pulling the pol­lut­ing particles to ground level and com­press­ing them in­to a tar-like gel. “[It’s] really, really, really dis­gust­ing, to be hon­est,” he said. “It’s really like, ‘Oh, my God. Are we breath­ing this?’ “

As for the tech­nic­al spe­cif­ics of his pro­ject, Roose­gaarde de­clined to of­fer. “I’m sim­pli­fy­ing it right now,” he said. “My sci­ent­ists would kill me if I ex­plain.”

In ad­di­tion to his stu­dio in the Neth­er­lands, Roose­gaarde has one in Shang­hai, and he said his fre­quent vis­its to China promp­ted him look for solu­tions to the smog prob­lem. In one vis­it to Beijing, he said, “Monday I could see the build­ings, and Tues­day I could see none any­more.”

So he went to work on a solu­tion, team­ing with sci­ent­ists ex­per­i­enced in deal­ing with dust particles, among oth­er things. In­door test­ing has been suc­cess­ful and “the num­bers are good to go,” he said, and Beijing’s mostly wind-free en­vir­on­ment of­fers a good start­ing point for a pro­ject.

Roose­gaarde is work­ing with the loc­al gov­ern­ment, which has com­mit­ted nearly $165 bil­lion to fight­ing smog over the next five years, and he hopes to launch a pi­lot ef­fort in a Beijing park some­time in 2014. “This is something I want to do next year,” he said. “I’m not very pa­tient in these kind of things.”

For now, the scope of the smog va­cu­um is lim­ited. A 60-by-60 meter area—or around 28,000 cu­bic meters, adding in the ver­tic­al ele­ment—is about the ex­tent of its reach. But Roose­gaarde sees that as a plus, mak­ing his pro­ject not an en­a­bler of more pol­lu­tion but a small-scale in­dic­at­or of what life could be like with cut­backs in harm­ful emis­sions.

“When you talk about re­duc­tion of smog, the tend­ency has al­ways been to do less,” he said. “Less cars, less in­dustry. But China wants the op­pos­ite. They want to do more. It’s my role to come up with new pro­pos­als to link the world of sci­ence but also ex­per­i­ence. That ef­fect where you can walk in­to the park later on and see the dif­fer­ence.”¦ ‘Hey, this is the new world. It’s a clean new world. Why do we still ac­cept the old world?’ I think this is a very rad­ic­al state­ment of how real­ity should be. And that will cre­ate a slow aware­ness, which is much more ef­fect­ive than all the fact sheets and all the sci­entif­ic art­icles that have already been pub­lished.”

By 2017, he’s hope­ful his pro­ject will be placed in every park in the city. Later on, a con­sumer ver­sion may be avail­able for sale world­wide. For now, he’s plan­ning a meet­ing with Beijing of­fi­cials later this week to de­term­ine the first park where he’ll test the pro­ject.

“These kind of prob­lems, they don’t have easy solu­tions. The people in China know that even bet­ter than I do,” Roose­gaarde said. “The real is­sue you solve is by clean en­ergy, elec­tric­al cars—so this is a hu­man prob­lem, not a tech­no­lo­gic­al is­sue. This is a really good step which we can do right now, which we don’t have to wait an­oth­er three or four years.”¦ If you show it, they be­lieve it. And you make people aware, and you make people ex­cited about it. That’s in­cred­ibly im­port­ant.”

When the pro­ject is up and run­ning, even the cap­tured smog will serve as a re­mind­er of the need to re­duce air pol­lu­tion. “Some parts we will use to make jew­elry, ac­cessor­ies like rings,” Roose­gaarde said. “We [will] give away smog rings as a tra­gic souven­ir of this world we live in right now.”

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