Can a 'Smog Vacuum' Fix Beijing's Air?

It's a limited-scope project, but its inventor thinks it can inspire large-scale change.

Daan Roosegaarde wants to start punching holes in Beijing's smog. (National Journal)

It's fitting that the best immediate hope for Beijing's smog problem comes from a Dutch artist. For Daan Roosegaarde, "landscape hacking" isn't a futuristic concept. "[In] the Netherlands, we live under sea level, so our whole land is in a way man- or woman-made," Roosegaarde said. "Because of water technology, we survive. So this relationship between the natural and the cultural has always been in our DNA."

Roosegaarde is the inventor of the "smog vacuum," which creates an electrostatic field that magnetizes smog and pulls it out of the air. The system operates on underground copper coils, pulling the polluting particles to ground level and compressing them into a tar-like gel. "[It's] really, really, really disgusting, to be honest," he said. "It's really like, 'Oh, my God. Are we breathing this?' "

As for the technical specifics of his project, Roosegaarde declined to offer. "I'm simplifying it right now," he said. "My scientists would kill me if I explain."

In addition to his studio in the Netherlands, Roosegaarde has one in Shanghai, and he said his frequent visits to China prompted him look for solutions to the smog problem. In one visit to Beijing, he said, "Monday I could see the buildings, and Tuesday I could see none anymore."

So he went to work on a solution, teaming with scientists experienced in dealing with dust particles, among other things. Indoor testing has been successful and "the numbers are good to go," he said, and Beijing's mostly wind-free environment offers a good starting point for a project.

Roosegaarde is working with the local government, which has committed nearly $165 billion to fighting smog over the next five years, and he hopes to launch a pilot effort in a Beijing park sometime in 2014. "This is something I want to do next year," he said. "I'm not very patient in these kind of things."

For now, the scope of the smog vacuum is limited. A 60-by-60 meter area--or around 28,000 cubic meters, adding in the vertical element--is about the extent of its reach. But Roosegaarde sees that as a plus, making his project not an enabler of more pollution but a small-scale indicator of what life could be like with cutbacks in harmful emissions.

"When you talk about reduction of smog, the tendency has always been to do less," he said. "Less cars, less industry. But China wants the opposite. They want to do more. It's my role to come up with new proposals to link the world of science but also experience. That effect where you can walk into the park later on and see the difference."¦ 'Hey, this is the new world. It's a clean new world. Why do we still accept the old world?' I think this is a very radical statement of how reality should be. And that will create a slow awareness, which is much more effective than all the fact sheets and all the scientific articles that have already been published."

By 2017, he's hopeful his project will be placed in every park in the city. Later on, a consumer version may be available for sale worldwide. For now, he's planning a meeting with Beijing officials later this week to determine the first park where he'll test the project.

"These kind of problems, they don't have easy solutions. The people in China know that even better than I do," Roosegaarde said. "The real issue you solve is by clean energy, electrical cars--so this is a human problem, not a technological issue. This is a really good step which we can do right now, which we don't have to wait another three or four years."¦ If you show it, they believe it. And you make people aware, and you make people excited about it. That's incredibly important."

When the project is up and running, even the captured smog will serve as a reminder of the need to reduce air pollution. "Some parts we will use to make jewelry, accessories like rings," Roosegaarde said. "We [will] give away smog rings as a tragic souvenir of this world we live in right now."