Air quality is so poor in Beijing that on bad days it’s hard to see buildings across the street. Strategies to live more safely in such an environment abound, and no wonder: The journal Nature recently found that air pollution leads to the premature death of three million people every year, mainly in Asia.
In addition to pervasive face masks, kids in the capital’s international schools play sports under protective domes. A British artist based in Beijing created a wacky-looking “breathing bicycle,” which filters air as the rider pedals, delivering it through a tube that snakes up to a breathing mask.
One of the latest in this array of pollution problem solvers is a tower that takes in smog and releases clean air. Last week, the Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde debuted his “Smog Free Tower” in Beijing’s 798 arts district, a former industrial zone. Set among old smokestacks, the metal tower reaches 23 feet and looks like what it is: an enormous version of a home air purifier.
The tower works by sending positive ions into the air, which attach to fine particles, including PM 2.5, the particulate matter that is especially hazardous to our health. A negatively charged surface (called a counter electrode) then brings the ions and their attached particles back in to the tower, where they are collected and stored. The tower subsequently spews out cleaner air through vents. (Roosegaarde uses the collected particles to make “Smog Free Jewelry” in the form of rings and cufflinks.)
Roosegaarde told Motherboard that the air surrounding the tower has up to 70 percent fewer pollution particles after it’s been cleaned. And since installing the tower in Beijing, he reported to CNN that it collects in one day what it brought in over the course of two weeks of testing in the Netherlands.
The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection is supporting Roosegaarde’s venture, and has asked him to take the tower on a tour of four other cities in the coming year. Roosegaarde hopes that this is only the beginning. He aims to install 800 of his towers in public parks across China, not only to create pockets of cleaner air, but to bring more awareness to what is admittedly a huge problem that a giant air purifier—or even 800 of them—can’t begin to solve.
“We need a bottom-up effort, both with citizens and governments actively working for change,” Roosegaarde told CNN. “My hope is that one day in 10 or 15 years, we’ll look back at [the tower] and find it obsolete.”