A Dutch futurist has a radical experiment to try and lift Bejing out of the city's smog-filled present.
For two days, a thick, choking haze of pollution has shut down schools and traffic in northeastern Chinese cities. At 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, the particulate matter readings in the city of Harbin triple the concentration deemed hazardous by the World Health Organization. But in order to reckon with the smog that threatens to shut down Beijing, the city is now coordinating with Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde to launch what he calls an "electronic vacuum cleaner" to suck up 50 meter-high cylinders of polluted air.
Last week, Roosegarde successfully demonstrated his smog machine in a 25 square meter room, in which he used an electrostatic field from copper coils to magnetize and pull down pollution from the air above. The effect could be replicated, he says, if those coils were buried underground in a public park. Now, Roosegaarde is working with Bop Ursem, a professor at the Technical University of Delft, to scale up the technology in Beijing.
"It's pacemaker-proof. It's similar to a lot of the WiFi signals we're surrounded by every day," Roosegaarde explained.
Roosegaarde has had experience working with electrostatic fields in the past. Last year, he proposed using electromagnetic charging strips to charge cars on "smart," communication-enabled highways, which won the designer an INDEX award in 2013. That pilot, he says, will debut in the coming weeks—though it's a "secret" as to when.
Electrostatic air filtering is used in hospitals on a much smaller scale, but part of Roosegaarde's challenge will be creating a clean 50-by-50 meter space, controlling for factors like wind. He also concedes that his smog machine won't solve the problem of all of Beijing's pollution, but is meant to serve as an awareness-raising exercise. If people can see the difference between a cylinder of clean air and the smog that surrounds it, the smog machine might function like a bat signal, or a cry for help.
"I think it's quite feasible in a weird way," Roosegaarde said. "Every project has its beauty and bullshit, so to speak. Of course you'll have influences like wind, how high is the smog, but these are the pragmatics. In principle, this is doable."
As for what he plans on doing with the pollution particles collected at the bottom of the cylinders (like a filter), Roosegarde is considering turning the concentrated pollution into jewelry. "It is a statement to show [that] this is the new world, why do we accept the old world?" Roosegaarde said. "In a world which is changing, it's all about finding the missing links between imagination and innovation, between science and art."