Vertical forests and air-filtering scarfs: Six of the best air quality innovations

To mark the first ever UK National Clean Air Day (15 June), edie rounds up the low-carbon and resource-efficient innovations that could alleviate rising air pollution levels and improve public health as part of a special edition of the green innovations of the week.

edie has pulled the best air quality innovations into this neat and tidy little green package

edie has pulled the best air quality innovations into this neat and tidy little green package

The UK’s track record on combatting air pollutions is a sordid tale. Many of the UK’s urban areas exceed the safe and legal limits for air pollution, which is mainly caused by road transport, and areas of London took just five days to breach annual legal air pollution limits.

Rather than tackle the issues head-on, the UK Government has instead decided to stick its head in sand, which is evidently more breathable than the air on London’s Brixton Road. Ministers have been forced to publish a new air quality plan after its previous efforts were rejected.

Even the new proposals have been described as “woefully inadequate”, and environmental lawyers are taking the Government to the High Court for a third time in an attempt to finally generate a robust plan.

As the Government drags its heels, behaviour change organisation Global Action Plan has launched the first ever National Clean Air Day, to inspire local schools, hospitals and communities in the UK to act for their own health. More than 50 health institutions, councils and universities supported the day, including the Royal College of Physicians, the British Lung Foundation, and various NHS Trusts.

In fact, Global Action Plan surveyed 2,000 adults and found that more than two-thirds would be willing to tackle the problem by paying an average of £2.59 each month, the equivalent to raising £1bn a year.

But what innovations could be introduced at the tune of £1bn annually? To speculate, edie has pulled the best air quality innovations into this neat and tidy little green package.

Fuel cell transport

Transport emissions in Europe, which is responsible for around 20% of total EU emissions, were “fully accounted for” by diesel consumption last year. Electric and hybrid vehicles have staked a well-deserved claim in the automotive market to lower emissions, but issues are still evident. In fact, electric cars are estimated to represent 35% of all car sales by 2040. Range anxiety is unlikely to affect urban dwellers, subsequently those most exposed to air pollution, but charging times and a lack of public charging infrastructure are hindering uptake.

Another form of low-carbon transport is fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs). FCVs, particularly hydrogen-based ones, do not emit any greenhouse gases during driving and vehicle operation and depending on how the hydrogen is produced, lifecycle emissions can be extremely low.

FCVs can run up to five times longer than their all-EV counterparts, and re-fuelling can be completed in three-minutes, which is much more appealing to consumers. The concept is also making in-roads in public transport. London Mayor Sadiq Khan unveiled a new hydrogen double-decker bus that will be trialled on London’s roads next year. London has committed to procuring roughly 300 zero-emission buses by 2020.

Smartphone apps

Smartphone apps are curious things. Swipe right to potentially meet the love of your life, flick across the screen to throw ill-tempered birds at pigs, and use GPS to find a less-polluting route around city centres. On such app that applies to that last category is 'AirView', developed by Swedish firm Blueair. The company aims to educate and inform people on both indoor and outdoor air pollution and the AirView app, which is available to users here in the UK, gathers data from more than 2,700 gauging stations in 150 countries to provide hourly updates on air pollution levels.

Blueair’s chief operating officer Herman Pihlträd believes that enhanced data collection abilities and the Internet of Things (IoT) have combined to create the most advanced monitoring capabilities over the last decade. However, the only problem in the increased access to data is that it only alerts you to the symptoms and does little to treat the cause.

Increasingly, apps are use IoT to connect to other systems, such as ventilation, to boost air quality but also educate consumers on what contributed to those air pollution levels. Whether it be diesel vehicles or buildings, these apps can drive behaviour change and create demand amongst the public for products and services that improve air quality rather than worsen it.

Bus stop filters

Some commuters simply can’t avoid roads around city centres. At the mercy of public transport, it can be hard to plan routes that don’t drag you through the most polluting parts of a city. The frequent delays on bus routes also adds to the exposure for certain individuals.

Fortunately, the Body Shop has partnered with a scientific research organisation to launch a new technology which aims to deliver up to 95% cleaner air at bus stops across London. Air cleaning units have been added at The Body Shop branded advertising at three bus stop sites in New Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and High Holborn.

Developed by Airlabs, the system traps particulate matter via a filtration system to protect bus passengers who are at high risk from pollution exposure. The project will showcase the role that technology can play in reducing the levels of exposure the city’s population is faced with, and could be rolled out at numerous stops and buildings based on its success.

Vertical forests

Air pollution isn’t a UK-specific issue and countries like China arguably have worse air quality records. The Chinese aren’t oblivious to this and are already trialling solutions, notably in the eastern city of Nanjing. That’s where Italian architects Stefano Boeri are hoping to demonstrate the potential of green buildings in the city.

The firm is set to build two skyscrapers in the city that will house up to 1,100 trees and 2,500 shrubs across rooftops and balconies. Construction is already underway and the buildings are expected to be completed next year. According to the architects, the “vertical forest” will contribute to regenerating local biodiversity, and provide 25 tons of CO2 absorption each year and will produce about 60 kg of Oxygen per day.

What is especially innovative about these designs is that the firm’s goal is to create an entire city of forests in Nanjing, and potentially roll it out to other cities. These two buildings, which feature museums, schools and hotels, will act as the blueprint for the company’s vision, which it hopes to create in Nanjing, Liuzhou and Shijiazhuang.

Carbon productivity

Contrary to popular belief, carbon isn’t inherently evil – so much so that companies like high-tech polymer supplier Covestro are treating it treat it as a valuable raw material that can enhance product specifications and cut key environmental footprints.

Another company adopting a similar mindset is Graviky Labs, a spinoff company from MIT Media Lab working out in India. The start-up is targeting tailpipe emissions from diesel vehicles, and using them as a resource material for an innovative Air-Ink system.

Currently crowd-funding through a Kickstarter campaign, the process attaches a “Kaalink” device to vehicle exhausts. The process is being kept under wraps by the firm, but the device can capture around 93% of the emissions from internal combustion engines, taking just 45 minutes to convert it to an ounce of ink, which will then be sold on as a product.

Wearable technology

In the wake of the tragic fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower in Latimer Road, West London, rescued residents and commuters were seen wearing surgical masks as a means to protect themselves from breathing in the smog. The masks are a popular and necessary apparel choice in China as well, but “wearable technology” might be about to change this.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this year, French start-up Clausette introduced the world to Wair, a scarf that doubles-up as a device that filters out harmful air pollutants. A small filter is hidden inside the scarf and can continuously monitor outside pollution in real-time to send air quality updates to users.

Wair uses a triple later filter to capture and stop micro-particles, pollens and bacteria. The filter needs recharging once every 1-2 months. Priced between $56-90, the scarf can also suggest new travel routes with improved air quality through an app called Supairman.

Matt Mace


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