Informative & Scope Innovation

A Breath of Purified Air

by Reyana Nacerodien

In 2015, Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde, created the first smog free tower in Rotterdam. Reyana Nacerodien chats with him about how it offers game-changing solutions to deal with smog. This article was first published in In Focus issue 7.

Clean air is a hot topic globally as climate considerations mount. Air pollution is one of the most pressing global problems where large cities face great threats regarding health issues and many are trying to find solutions to deal with micro dust. Some climate-orientated innovations have focused on purifying the air we breathe which is, at present, subject to constant pollution. This air pollution was further defined early in the 20th century. The word ‘smog’, a contraction of the words smoke and fog, was then coined to reference intense air pollution.

In 2013, on a visit to Beijing, Dutch artist, Daan Roosegaarde, was confronted by this. During his stay, he experienced a smog-filled view from his hotel room. On that visit, he became aware of local children were kept indoors because of the severity of the air pollution. Rather than be dismayed at the state of affairs, Daan was inspired to make a difference. One of his innovations, the Smog Free Tower, has been an ongoing experiment in recent years in cities like South Korea, China, Poland and the Netherlands. Today, his designs are, quite literally, bringing about a breath of purified air.

41-year old Daan is an artist and innovator. He’s a creative thinker and maker of social designs which explore the relation between people, technology and space and best known for creating landscapes of the future. He studied fine arts and graduated from the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam with a master in architecture. He founded Studio Daan in 2007, where he works with his team of designers.

Daan is an advisor for Design Singapore Council, visiting professor at the University of Monterrey in Mexico as well as Tongji University Shanghai, and a member of the NASA innovation team. He has been selected by Forbes, WIRED and Good 100 as a creative change maker. To date, Studio Roosegaarde has won a number of awards including the Gold Award from Design for Asia, Hong Kong.

The Smog Free Project
The broader Smog Free Project is a long-term campaign for clean air in which Daan and his team of experts created what has become known as the world’s first smog vacuum cleaner. A smog tower is a structure designed to work as a large-scale air purifier, fitted with multiple layers of filters which trap fine dust particles suspended in the air as it passes through them.

At seven metres tall, the Smog Free Tower is one of the largest air purifiers in the world, sucking in smog through its top. It uses patented positive ionisation technology to produce smog free air in public spaces, allowing people to breathe and experience clean air. It’s equipped with environment-friendly technology and uses a small amount of green electricity, only 1170 watts, to cleanse an estimated 30 cubic meters per hour – having been tested and validated by the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

The tower captures and removes up to 70 per cent of the ingested PM10 and up to 50 per cent of the ingested PM2.5. Clean air is released through vents along its six-sided body creating 360-degree coverage around the tower thereby creating an almost circular zone of clean air surrounding the structure. Through its operation, the tower provides a local solution for clean air such as in parks while offering an aesthetic art installation. Daan affirms his vision by holding, ‘True beauty isn’t a Louis Vuitton bag or a Ferrari, but clean air and clean energy.’

The South Korea Example
Cities in South Korea were among those that recorded record levels of dangerous air pollution last year leading the government to impose stringent implementations to help curb the problem. According to the National Institute of Environmental Research, seven major cities in the country had extremely high levels of dangerous fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution. Seoul has already introduced emergency measures, such as limiting vehicle use, curbing the use of coal-fired power stations and cutting the amount of dust generated by building sites and power plants. These, however, have had limited success and there are many days where a thick haze of smog is clouds people’s experience.

Smog free Tower, Korea

Air pollution problems have also caused political tension between the country and neighbouring China. Some South Korean public health experts claim that China is responsible for between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of fine dust pollution in the Seoul area, home to almost half the country’s population. Prevailing westerly winds transport such pollution.

In response to what has been termed the ‘social disaster’, South Korea’s Public Art Project (APAP) invited Daan to build a Smog Free Tower in Pyeong-chon Central Park in Anyang, South Korea which, they hope, will become an iconic landmark in the park. ‘It imposes a strong will to improve the quality of life for the public, conveying the message of a symbiotic relationship between the city and the environment through the means of art; a campaign for the landscapes of the future,’ Daan explains.

Smog Free Spinoffs
Pushing the boundaries of environmental response and design, Daan and his team have crafted interesting offshoots to the smog free tower.

Smog Free Ring

Smog Free Rings
The launches of smog free towers in Rotterdam, Beijing and South Korea were followed by the release of the Smog Free Ring offering a tangible souvenir of compressed smog particles. The unique piece of jewellery is individually crafted by Daan’s team in the Netherlands and unique is a first in the world. Smog Free Rings can be purchased through Studio Daan and its sales contribute to the development of the Smog Free project and its global tour. Each Smog Free Ring is the equivalent of 1000 m3 of clean air for the city. Rings have become popular gifts among design, tech, fashion and green enthusiasts, and have even used as engagement and wedding rings.

Smog Free Bicycle
Daan went into an exclusive partnership with OFO, the Chinese bike sharing programme with over 20 million registered users and Tezign, a leading Chinese design platform, to develop the Smog Free Bicycle in China. The innovative bicycle basically ‘inhales’ polluted air, cleans it, and releases clean air around the cyclist providing a healthy and energy friendly solution for urbanites, combatting both traffic congestion and pollution issues in the city. The bicycle draws its inspiration from the Smog Free workshop held in Beijing which featured artist Matt Hope and Professor Yang from Tsinghua University. ‘Beijing used to be an iconic bicycle city. Together with Chinese and Dutch expertise we will bring back the bicycle as a cultural icon of China and as the next step towards smog free cities,’ says Daan

Smog Free Bicycle

Smog Eating Billboard
In his capacity as visiting professor in environmental design, Daan worked with students from the UDEM University in Mexico on a range of projects, one of which was to bring about the smog eating billboard which was inspired by the Smog Free Project. The project takes advantage of existing city panoramic structures to clean up polluting particles through an intelligent coating process that involves sunlight and wind.

Acknowledging the 900 billboards in the heavily polluted city of Monterrey in Mexico, the project turned the billboard concept on its head by prioritising the need for clean air. Monterrey is currently affected by two problems, air pollution and visual pollution, occupying the first places not only nationally, but also in Latin America. This project proposes to take advantage of the existing structures of the city panoramas to clean the polluting particles through an intelligent coating process in which sunlight and wind are involved. It consists of offering an additional alternative solution to mitigate air pollution and generate a real impact.

Results illustrate that the smog eating billboard emits clean air the equivalent of 30 trees every 6 hours, giving clean air to 104 people daily and can function for five years. ‘It was great to work with the students and take a problem and transform it into a potential. I am really proud to see them go from academic research to a real project. I do not believe in utopia, a perfect solution, but protopia, step by step improving reality,’ says Daan.

The smog eating billboard consists of a coated surface with a chemical that attracts the particles of contamination, and then purifies them, in a process called photocatalysis. The project will have a large impact on the city scale of Monterrey where there is little space for trees and pollution is trapped in the valley surrounded by mountains.  The billboard article that was not designed to help the environment, in this case, serves as a tool to create a positive impact on the city.

Last Breath
Though the output of Daan’s Smog Free Tower is limited to its immediate surroundings thereby fuelling scepticism from critics, it offers an innovative solution to deal with the very real problem of air pollution. Its establishment in various locations has contributed to smog reduction activities and served as an educational event, raising awareness and encouraging citizens to do their bit to reduce air pollution.

More than 80 per cent of people in urban areas are exposed to air quality levels that exceed World Health Organisation limits. The organisation warns of the major public health risks of air pollution given its links to a host of respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. The Smog Free Project is a part of Daan’s larger body of work entitled ‘Landscapes of the Future’ which seeks to connect people, technology and space to improve the quality of daily life in urban environments.

Photos are by Daan Roosegaarde.

29 Jul 2021
Last modified: 29 Jul 2021
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