Innovations among soldiers at war with air pollution

Pollution in the air creates difficulty in breathing, itchy eyes, skin allergies, and more. Research shows that long term exposure to polluted air can not only result in people developing long-term diseases, but also reduce their life expectancy. While governments have been trying at different levels to combat air pollution, scientists, administrators, and innovators have been coming up with all types of innovations for the same

The first clear sign of air pollution was the detection of a hole in the ozone layer above the Arctic by three scientists from the British Antarctic Survey in 1985. It should have been the ultimate wake-up call.But decades later, when humans started suffocating in the air that they themselves created, people across the globe started coming up with innovative technologies to enable easier access to clean air. Things like air purifiers, N95 masks, have taken significant space in an individual’s life, to survive

New Delhi: East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) tankers sprinkles water on a street as a measure to curb pollution in New Delhi on Oct 16, 2019. (Photo: IANS)

Popular innovations and Usage

Vertical Forest
Stefano Boeri, an Italian researcher, built the first vertical forest towers, the ‘Bosco Verticale’ in Milan in 2014. The two towers are covered with a total of 900 trees, 5,000 shrubs and over 11,000 other plants. The vegetation absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, preventing the gas from causing further greenhouse warming in the atmosphere. Additionally, plants and trees filter airborne particulates either by intercepting them or absorbing them through pores in the leaf surface.
Asia’s first vertical forest, built in China, named as the Nanjing Green towers, has 600 tall trees and 500 medium-sized trees covering a 6000 sqm area. Mana Foresta is a vertical forest tower built in Sarjapur, Bangalore. It is a 14 storey tower and instead of concrete, glass and steel, what one sees is countless trees, shrubs, perennials, climbers and creepers.
Taking inspiration from such vertical forest towers, governments in cities like Noida, New Delhi, and Ahmedabad have been growing vertical gardens on pillars under the metro rail corridors, elevated roads, and flyovers. This innovation aims at increasing greenery, offsetting carbon footprints of people and fuel emissions, purify the air, and reduce urban heat in the much-congested cities.

Smog-guzzling/Air Cleaning buildings

A building named Pallazo Italia, which also acts as a smog-eating machine, was constructed in Milan in 2019. Its TX Active technology captures air pollution when the envelope material comes in contact with light, which it then transforms into inert salts. The building itself is net-zero energy, which means that the structure is capable of covering its energy needs autonomously.
Manuel Gea González Hospital in Mexico added a new “smog-eating” façade over its building covering over 2,500 square meters. The system’s thermoformed shells coated in photocatalytic titanium dioxide reacts with light to neutralise elements of air pollution, negating the effects of up to 1,000 cars a day according to its developers. Due to the distinctly high construction cost, there has been no such project in developing countries like India.

Cloud Seeding
Cloud seeding is a way to artificially tweak rain and alter the natural development of the cloud to enhance precipitation, suppress hail, dissipate fog, or reduce lightning. According to the World Meteorological Organization, at least 56 countries have used some sort of cloud seeding. This technique is used for a variety of purposes like reducing fog in airports in Russia, creating heavy rainfall in UAE, and clearing smog and combating air pollution in China.
Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology has been carrying out cloud seeding experiments in areas around Nagpur, Solapur, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Jodhpur, and Varanasi. The success rate of these experiments in inducing rains is about 60 to 70 per cent, which very much depends on local atmospheric conditions, the amount of moisture in the air and cloud characteristics. In 2018, to combat the frightful Air Quality Index in New Delhi, the Ministry of Environment had initiated a cloud seeding program along with IIT Kanpur and Central Pollution Control Board. However, due to Delhi’s dry weather conditions, the plan was never put into action.

Water Sprinklers
Yu Shaocai, a scientist, came up with the idea of spraying water into the atmosphere from sprinklers atop skyscrapers and towers to curb air pollution. Water shortage and the feasibility of the concept hindered its implementation. Although deriving from the same idea, cities have come up with sprinkling water on the ground level across the cities to settle the dust and reduce pollution in the air. Cities like New Delhi and Ghaziabad have deployed water sprinklers for the same. The East Delhi Municipal Corporation alone purchased 40 water sprinkler machines to combat air pollution. But the issue of water availability for this system remains and experts suggest using recycled water for sprinkling.

Anti-smog Guns
An anti-smog gun is similar to water sprinklers but different in its approach. It sprays atomised water, while remaining connected to a water tank, into the atmosphere to settle the dust and other suspended particles like PM 2.5. The trial of the very first anti-smog gun was conducted in New Delhi in AnandVihar by Delhi’s Department of Environment and Delhi Pollution Control Committee. This technique focuses on three key sources of pollution–transport, industry, and road dust and fugitive emissions.
In October this year, ten anti-smog guns have been installed in South Delhi. Ghaziabad Municipal Corporation has attached anti-smoke guns to water-sprinkling tanks to reduce additional cost of getting separate tanks and drivers for both.

PUSA Decomposer
Delhi and many other North Indian states get covered with smoke due to stubble burning by the farmers. Scientists at Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) came up with an innovation named ‘PUSA’. According to A K Singh, Director, IARI, PUSA Decomposer is a set of four tablets made by extracting fungi strains that help the paddy straw to decompose in or under 25 days. A packet of four tablets costs `20 whose distribution has
already started.

How relevant and feasible are these technologies?

Dr Harini Nagendra, Ecologist, Author, and Professor at Azim Premji University, looks at many of these technologies with skepticism. Cities like Delhi and Bangalore talk about smog free towers but much of the interest comes from the municipalities as the towers are major sources of profit for them. She said, “What is the point of cutting down big trees and installing smog scrubbing towers?” She added that simple things like maintaining the ecosystem of trees, lakes, wetlands, planting more trees, and implementing existing policies like covering construction sites, spraying recycled water regularly in areas, will go a much longer way into cleaning the air that we breathe.
Recent studies show that solid waste dumps, in and outside of the city are mammoth contributors to the emissions. If trash collection, recycling, and composting are done better by the system, one would not need to invest so much into high-tech alien innovations. She finds some technology and tools to be feasible and much needed like composters, compressed incinerators, and water sprinklers to curb air pollution. Dr Nagendra believes that vertical forests or gardens built on highway or metro pillars in Indian cities do not seem to work so much. The question we never think during its installation is, who is going to maintain it? Where is the maintenance budget? Dr Nagendra believes that it is not the best environment for those plants to grow either. “They are right next to concrete, it is very hot, you need to keep replacing the soil, keep adding water, add a lot of artificial nutrients, so most of these which are grown, die. And, a lot of money goes into them,” she said.
Bicycle lanes, e-bikes are good ideas but they need better implementation as well. There is need for policing and monitoring in such a way that cars, motorcycles, orcostermongers don’t come into the lane. Dr Nagendra noted with regret that we start good things but fail to recognize how to maintain them. Authorities also have to make sure that these lanes are comfortable for people to cycle along.
Air purifiers, smog towers, vertical forests, all of these are so expensive that they can be only installed in a few wealthy areas. But those wealthy areas already have lush green trees around, it’s the crowded urban spaces where most of us are exposed to the pollution. Harini said, “You cannot expect technology to take the role of what nature used to do. You have to have technology working along with restoration of the
natural ecosystem.”

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