China is another world. I arrived in Beijing at the beginning of last summer, eager to succeed in my two months of Mandarin Studies. Throughout my time there I was thrust into a variety of new experiences, which spoke to the nature of both Chinese culture and Chinese creativity. I ate food from odd stoves, fumbled through a new way of using the bathroom, and learned how to tactfully bargain with vendors on the street (the more creative and humorous you are, the lower you can get the price). I welcomed all these experiences. However, there was one thing I did not welcome – the same thing that is being imposed upon the Chinese people every day. Air pollution.
I had heard it was bad. During my first weekend in China, my language program offered a screening of “Under the Dome,” former news reporter Chai Jing’s government-banned documentary that exposes the truth behind China’s growing air pollution. The film offered strong criticism of factories and the government departments in charge of supervising them. Factories burn coal and other dirty materials at unregulated times through unregulated facilities. The site visited by the reporter showed factories where excess waste flowed out to nearby rivers and was burnt without the use of air purifiers. Jing also attacked the automotive industry, discovering that emissions from Beijing’s five million cars contribute significantly to the air pollution. Studies have shown that an estimated 4,400 people die each day in China from the health issues caused by the polluted air. Cancer, and lung cancer in particular, run rampant throughout China’s polluted cities. Chai Jing realized this truth in a tough way—she quit her news anchor position to make this documentary right after she was told her unborn child was diagnosed with a tumor.
It only took a week in Beijing for me to see this air pollution problem firsthand. As I walked around, buildings were obscured by black smog. The library at Beijing Normal University, my host school, was the tallest building on campus. On days with a blue sky, the library could be seen towering over all of campus. Most days, however, I could not even see its smog-covered top from the classrooms next door. On some days, it was common to see more masks on the street than bare smiles.
Friends and I made a habit of checking the Air Quality Index (AQI) each day. The AQI is a number used by government agencies around the world to forecast how polluted the air will be on a certain day. It is essentially the PM 2.5 rating scale. Particulate Matter (PM) is what makes up the air pollution. As emissions release small solid and liquid droplets into the air, they mix physically and chemically. This results in tiny black particles that, in tremendous number, form a haze that clouds entire megacities. Coarse dust particles make up PM 10, particles between 2.5 and 10 micrometers. The most dangerous, however, is PM 2.5, which means fine particles. These are less than 2.5 micrometers and can easily travel into and through the human lungs. They can only be seen with an electron microscope, and are caused by any sort of combustion.
The worldwide AQI gives daily updates on the PM 2.5 levels of cities across the globe. In most cases, a rating below 50 means excellent air quality. Anything above 100 can start to induce health problems in healthy individuals. Checking places like Washington, or Los Angeles read a level of 30-50 on any given day, well below the regulated limit. On any given day, Beijing’s level exceeded 150, multiples higher than the hazardous limit.
Chai Jing’s documentary offered solutions to this issue, but they were all political and social approaches. For example, approaches like stricter regulation of factory production and tighter inspection of proper automobile manufacturing are the same methods that cities like London and Los Angeles employed to clean up their respective pollution problems in the 1900’s.
China’s air problem, however, exists during a period of greater global connection. Thanks to the internet and worldwide broadcasting, this issue has been seen by a wide variety of thinkers who offer new approaches to solving these kinds of problems. The problem is no longer simply one of policy reform—it is one that invites innovation. Many solutions have been proposed, and a few are actually in place. Some are comical, and some are genius in their simplicity.
One creative idea tackles both the problem of Beijing’s congested road traffic and the pollution that results from the many unmoving cars. It is a futuristic bus, one that is several lanes wide and would run above the street, so that cars could still run underneath it. The Transit Elevated Bus technology (TEB), founded in 2016 by Zhiming Bai, straddles the street with a long series of wheels while its passengers sit comfortably in a cabin hoisted several feet off the ground. Prototype videos for this new technology were shared by my excited Chinese friends on Facebook, curious about this idea and wanting to get the word spread.
This technology seems farfetched, but it captured the attention of investors at the Beijing International High Tech Expo this summer. The bus would run completely on electricity, making use of a long, wide rooftop as the source of solar energy. Beijing’s extensive subway system also produces low emissions, but it requires time and a significant amount of money to dig up the ground for additional tracks. The bus’s technology would only cost 20% as much as building more subways. In addition, since the bus is meant to reduce road traffic, the company has also calculated that putting it on the road would greatly reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions. The TEB is expected to come with an average fuel consumption of 21.6 tons per year, and an estimated carbon emission of 66 tons each year. With the capacity to carry 1200-1400 passengers, this is the equivalent of replacing 40 regular busses on the street, which would cut over 800 tons of fuel use and over 2500 tons of emissions every year.
The TEB, however, is still in the development and prototyping phase. After it has been successfully produced and tested, it will still have to meet the regulations of the Chinese government, where project backing is still unclear. In the meantime, the problem of air pollution calls for other creative solutions.
In 2015, an artist by the name of Nut Brother showed the world his project: he walked around the streets of Beijing for 100 days with a vacuum, sucking up air. Afterwards, he used all of the particles he collected, compressed it all together with a bit of clay, and produced a brick. It was an astonishing visualization of just how bad the air quality really is.
Drawing on Nut Brother’s work, Dutch artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde developed the Smog Free Project. The basic premise of this project is to make the world’s largest air purifier, termed the Smog Free Tower. Standing at 7 meters tall, the structure used ion technology to take in the nearby airborne PM 10 and PM 2.5 smog particles. It processes this material and releases the clean air back into the environment. The result? The structure purifies 30 square meters of air every hour while only using small amounts of electricity, leaving the air more than 70% cleaner.
Since the tower collects physical material, the question remains of what to do with the remaining material after the clean air is filtered out. Roosegaarde’s team came up with a creative answer: make diamonds. There are a variety of chemicals that mix and react together to form PM 2.5 and PM 10, and a large percentage of those particles has a carbon component. When carbon based materials are put under high heat and high pressure, the compressed result is the sleek, shiny material we know as diamond. The Smog Free Tower puts its collected smog particles under high pressure for 30 minutes. Then, they are sealed within a resin cube and made into beautiful rings and cufflinks.
This invention has attracted a lot of attention: the first 1,000 rings have already been requested and several tower installation inquiries already received from cities around the world. This is exciting, but Roosegaarde still warns that the Tower is not meant as a permanent solution to hazardous air pollution, but rather as a way to give communities an escape from the dome of toxic atmospheres into a bubble of clean air. He wants to use this invention to draw more attention to the problem. By creating a space where the difference in air quality is so great that it has a profound effect on one’s mood and well-being, it is possible that the rest of the world can experience a mentality shift. Not until that shift happens can we expect to see true efforts to rid the world of smog.
Beijing’s first Smog Free Tower debuted on September 29th at 751 D Park, an open air section of the city’s famous arts district. Before my time in Beijing came to a close, I visited that park and was struck by the beautiful sculptures and thoughtful murals, all expounding a deeper meaning. I hope I can go back to China soon and revisit the park to see its newest work of art—one that makes everything around it a little bit clearer.
Antonio Medina is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at email@example.com.
(Featured image: From the peak of a nearby hill, one can see the entire span of China’s famous Forbidden City. In the distance, the modern city of Beijing is covered in a blanket of heavy air pollution. Photo courtesy of the author).