Tackling pollution: Fashion, wearables and supercomputing part of the solution

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With the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions getting greater by the day, we investigate how experts in computing, architecture, fashion and skincare are using technology to combat the effects of pollution.


Air pollution kills 3.5 million people a year, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In its recent report, titled Cost of Air Pollution: Health Impacts of Road Transport, the organisation laid the blame squarely at the door of drivers, with diesel users singled out as producing the highest emissions.

“The price we pay to drive doesn’t reflect the impact of driving on the environment and on people’s health,” says OECD secretary-general Angel Gurría. “Tackling air pollution requires collective action. Air pollution is destroying our health and the planet. Phasing out tax incentives on diesel would be a step towards reducing the costs and in fighting climate change.”

Whilst the automotive industry is making some progress with low-emission cars, it will take a much wider effort if the world is to succeed in hitting its ambitious C02 targets. The EU wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030 whilst the UK Government is targeting an 80% reduction by 2050. So what else can be done?

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Supercomputing

Another place setting itself an ambitious emission reduction target is Beijing. Officials in the city have partnered with IBM to help them reduce harmful air pollutant particulate matter (PM) 2.5 by 25% by 2017.

As part of a wider initiative dubbed Green Horizon, IBM’s cognitive computing systems will analyse and learn from streams of real-time data generated by air quality monitoring stations, meteorological satellites and IBM’s new-generation optical sensors – all connected by the Internet of Things.

By applying supercomputing processing power, scientists from IBM and the Beijing government aim to create visual maps showing the source and dispersion of pollutants across Beijing 72 hours in advance, which will allow them to temporarily shut factories and restrict vehicles in areas of high pollution.

“As a leader in climate modelling, cognitive computing and predictive analytics, IBM Research can provide a lot of value to Beijing and other Chinese cities which are facing significant pressure to better monitor, respond to and address air pollution issues,” says Tao Wang, resident scholar on the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy.

“Science based decision support systems, combined with sophisticated data analysis is exactly what the Chinese Government needs to address the country’s energy and environmental issues.”

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Architecture

In the US and the UK, buildings are responsible for 38% of greenhouse gas emissions. With that in mind, lots of companies and individuals are busy fitting photovoltaic panels, insulation and recycling products in a bid to make their buildings carbon neutral or at least reduce the amount of harmful gasses they emit. But could they be doing more?

The next wave of designers certainly thinks so. Evolo Architecture Magazine’s 2014 skyscraper competition was full of designs for buildings that didn’t just fail to pollute, they actively sought to enhance the environment through scientific processes that would clean harmful CO2 and prevent it being released back into the atmosphere.

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One of these concepts is Project Blue, which was given an honourable mention in this year’s Evolo competition. “China’s explosive economy has left the world in awe but the country is paying a big price as the ‘factory of the world’ is getting polluted at an alarming speed,” Yang Siqi, Zhan Beidi, Zhao Renbo, Zhang Tianshuo said of their entry. “Chinese cities are now characterised by an unhealthy hazy weather as the result of large amounts of suspended particles in the air.

The purpose of Project Blue is to transform these suspended particles into green energy, the designers explain. It does that by creating an enormous upside-down cooling tower with a multi-tubular cyclic desulfurisation system that produces nitrogen and sulfur. When both elements are combined with the atmosphere’s surplus of carbon monoxide, the result is water coal that would later be transformed into methane and used as green energy through a low-pressure reaction called low pressure efficient mathanation – a physical-chemical process to generate methane from a mixture of various gases out of biomass fermentation or thermo-chemical gasification.

Meanwhile, architects in London are pioneering another solution to the problem. Orproject’s Bubbles concept, which is already attracting interest from China and Dubai, would see the creation of a protective dome or bubble around an area to safeguard the air quality in that space.

“As a response to the bad air quality which is affecting many cities in developing countries like India and China, Orproject proposes the construction of an enclosed park within the city,” explains Rajat Sodhi, an architect at the firm.

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The park houses a botanical garden; the air inside is filtered and temperature and humidity are controlled throughout the year. The buildings surrounding the park, which are connected to the controlled air system, can house apartments, offices and retail space as well as sports or medical facilities that make specific use of the healthy air.

“The idea of covering larger areas of a city by a transparent surface has most famously been proposed by Buckminster Fuller with his dome over New York, although his proposal was conceptual and would not be feasible to construct,” Sodhi explains. “However, together with a specialist contractor Orproject has developed a new type of construction system that is lightweight and affordable. The costs of the canopy can then be covered by the development of the surrounding buildings.

“The geometry of the structural system has been generated using an algorithm which simulates the development of veins in leaves or butterfly wings. The heating and cooling of the air is done through a ground source heat exchange system and the electricity for the project can be generated by solar cells integrated into the canopy surface.”

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Wearable tech

Whilst architects try to solve the pollution issue on a large scale, some technologists are designing solutions that enable you to look after number one.

Showcased at the Beijing Design Week in September, the wearable BB Suit 0.2 features a tracking sensor to record how many particles of carbon monoxide, methane and LPG are in the atmosphere and uses cold plasma technology to create a bubble of clean air around the user.

The designers of the suit say it won’t be available commercially any time soon because of safety issues around the cleaning. However, the team behind the cold plasma technology used in the suit, SQUAIR, has been working on a similar concept of its own that it hope to bring to market as soon as possible.

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“The BB Suit was only an art concept we supported for the Beijing Design week,” explains SQUAIR CEO Florian Windeler. “It was very conceptual and far from reality. At SQUAIR we wanted to see how the people reacted to a concept like that. Since the reactions were very positive, we further developed the project in-house and will present it next week during our Kickstarter campaign.

While the BB Suit was mainly showcasing the different knitting techniques and less technology focused, the designers say they want to put the technology in the centre of attention. The product will have three rechargeable battery packs that will power the suit for at least twelve hours non-stop.

The cold plasma technology is integrated in a breast pocket to create the clean air bubble around the wearer’s head. “We chose leather as the leading material as it gives sturdiness to the suit,” says Windeler. “Especially in China, the smog is most prominent in the winter time, hence the thicker jacket. As this is the first true wearable item for SQUAIR, we call it sqWEARable.”

Skincare solutions

Working on the premise that if you can’t reduce or clean pollution you can at least mitigate its effects on your body, the next frontier for anti-pollution innovation is skincare. Between 2011 and 2013 the number of beauty and personal care products carrying an anti-pollution claim rose by 40% in the Asia Pacific region, according to research published in November 2014 by Mintel.

“As awareness of the effects of pollution grows, we are seeing the expansion of beauty products that shield from its effect across regions, categories, occasions, ages and gender,” says Emmanuelle Moeglin, global fragrance and colour cosmetics analyst at Mintel.

Experts warn that pollution can be nearly as harmful to the skin as UV rays. Products launched to tackle this issue range from simple sprays and creams to more sophisticated solutions like the Clarisonic Plus Cleaning System, a sort-of toothbrush for the face, which the manufacturers claim removes 30 times more pollution damage from make-up free skin than using your hands alone.

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“PM is a complex form of pollution consisting of extremely small particles and liquid droplets that are up to 20 times smaller than our pores,” explains Dr. Lauri M. Tadlock MD, a dermatologist in Washington.

“The PM size is directly linked to the speed and depth at which pollutants penetrate the layers of skin. PM 10 and lower can be more damaging to skin and the vast majority of the globe is facing dangerous levels of pollutants as low as PM 2.5. In most cases, our hands alone cannot effectively remove pollution matter of this size and form.”

Although many governments are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the coming years, the number of skincare products aimed at combatting the harmful effects of pollution is expected to keep rising.
“With an increasing number of consumers living more urbanised lifestyles, looking forward we expect to see a rising number of beauty and personal care products launched carrying more specific anti-pollution terminology, that specify the sources and composition of the pollutants,” says Moeglin.

“As the Asia Pacific region has showcased such a high increase in beauty product launches containing anti-pollution claims, it shows that companies located in this area are listening to and answering consumer demands for this benefit.”


Featured image courtesy of Orproject. Image one courtesy of IBM. Image two courtesy of Project Blue. Image five courtesy of SQUAIR.


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