Scientists have been looking for ways to reduce air pollution in cities for decades. Smarter cars, better CO2 emission standards, innovative transportation methods and more intercity bike paths are all part of the strategies that have been used in large cities to reduce smog.
But what if researchers could find a way to “scrub” city air of its already existing pollutants? And what if the structural architecture of a building’s façade could be used to dramatically enhance those air-cleaning properties?
A design company based in Berlin, Germany believes it’s discovered a way to do just that.
Elegant Embellishments Ltd (EE) is the creator of proSolve 370e, a “decorative, three-dimensional architectural tile” that is designed to be installed on buildings to decrease air pollution in urban settings. According to the company’s co-director, Allison Dring, the active substance in the design is a liquid covering that was developed by the U.S. company Millennium Chemicals in 2005. EE’s smart design actually helps make it easier for the neutralizing substance to do its job. And, the design is eye-catching.
“We thought the technology was missing an opportunity to attach to an aesthetic, to be visibly apparent to the public,” says Dring, who runs the company with her partner, Daniel Schwaag. “(But) what keeps us attached to the technology is the tiny performance of this reaction, happening on a micro-scale, having the ability to impact architectural and urban spaces.”
The tiles, which have been likened in structure to marine corals or sponges, are currently being installed on the outside of the new wing of the Dr. Manual Gea Gonzalez Hospital in Mexico City. It’s an ideal location for pollution-busting architecture, says Dring. Until recently, Mexico City was one of the five worst cities on the planet for air pollution. Government-backed projects like the proSolve 370e installation project at Manual Gea Gonzalez Hospital may have helped to reverse that trend.
Although the tiles are already installed on the outside of the building, contractors are still putting the finishing touches on the interior. The building is due to open in July 2013.
Dring says that while the depolluting coating can be applied to just about any surface, her team uses architectural design as a means to facilitate its effects.
“Each application is heavily tied to the conditions of the surroundings: solar levels, wind speed and direction,” she explains. “Each involves a bit of tuning to ensure the technology is working to its maximum potential.”
The ornate, repetitive shapes help create turbulence and cut the velocity of the wind, which in turn helps distribute the particulates more evenly. The exposure of titanium dioxide – a main component of the substance - to the sun’s UV rays also plays a part in the breakdown of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the air.
Thus, says Dring, “we typically focus on the shape slopes, surface complexity, reception and scattering of light to enhance the depolluting activity.” The design and size of the tiles might be different for example, from those applied in a different setting.
Flat paints containing Millennium Chemical’s depollution coating have also had some success in reducing NOx in urban settings.
A project in Manila, Philippines, for example, in which the flat walls and the roof a transit station were painted with Knoxout, a paint containing Millennium Chemical’s coating in 2010 has had reasonable success in cutting down NOx in Manila’s smog-impacted commercial center. According to Dring, researchers measured a 26 percent reduction in NOx in the air after six months, or the equivalent pollution of 17 cars a day for each square meter of painted surface.
“The facade in Mexico removes the NOx from (around) 86,000 cars driving by the building per day, or the equivalent of 1,083 cars on the road in Mexico City per day.”
Since the tiles were installed at the request of the hospital and not as a controlled test site, Dring is not sure whether there will be any monitoring of the results by EE staff. But residents and pedestrians are often good barometers of air quality.
"Quite often, people on the street do notice a change in the air, or find it easier to breathe (than) when it was noticeably polluted before. It does have that effect, particularly in places like tunnel entrances, where much of the exhaust from cars collects and swirls."
A trial project initiated in the municipality of The Hague, Holland has recently applied the titanium dioxide-rich KnoxOut paint to the inside of a commuter tunnel, and equipped it with UV lighting to promote the effect of the paint. The Dutch government plans to monitor the tunnel for a year to see whether air pollution in the tunnel is improved.
Elegant Embellishment has received inquiries about its tiles from around the world and currently has exhibits in Venice, Paris, Berlin and the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum at the Smithsonian Institute in New York.
Images courtesy of Elegant Embellishments
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.