Last year, people hailed a 23-foot metal tower in Beijing as a ‘clean air temple’ — a ‘smog vacuum cleaner’, it sucked in polluted air, used patented ionisation technology to remove particulate matter and expelled purified air through its vents. Today, they are excited about something much smaller, a module that works on the same principles but which will be integrated into the handlebars of a bicycle, ensuring every rider his/her own “bubble of pure air”.
“We’ve a lot of experience and technology in cleaning air; now we are building on that tradition, but in a more energy-friendly manner,” explains Dutch innovator and designer Daan Roosegaarde, over phone from Delhi. In town to discuss a possible India tour of the tower (the efficacy of which was recently validated by the Netherlands’ Eindhoven University of Technology), he says the bicycle is chapter two of his Smog Free Project.
“The cycle is part of the Dutch DNA, and it is like a cultural icon between us and China, and even India. I want to bring back this tradition, as riding will now have a double function: cleaning the air and reducing traffic congestion,” says the 37-year-old, who was named Netherlands’ Artist of the Year 2016. The smog free bicycle — the idea for which was born in a workshop at Beijing’s Tsinghua University — is currently being prototyped. While Roosegaarde states there are still tweaks to be made (he is considering placing a filter around the wheels, to additionally clean the air) and questions to be answered, like what they will do with the collected smog (besides making jewellery), he hopes to have the design roll out later this year. “We’ve signed a deal with Ofo, one of the largest bike-sharing companies in China,” he shares, adding that it will be an upgrade of their existing bicycles, so the price for the customer will remain the same.
Roosegaarde is the first to admit that a tower or cycles will not solve the pollution problem of a whole city. “True solutions need to target the causes, like India declaring it is looking at an electric car fleet by 2030. But such initiatives take a long time to implement. I feel bottom-up projects are powerful, as they trigger people to participate, to work together to improve life,” he says, adding, “For most millennials, true luxury is not about a Louis Vuitton bag or an expensive watch, but clean air, water and energy. I want to be part of that movement, I want to speed up that movement.”
Trees and the sewer?
The last few days have been hectic, meeting with people from the Indian government, institutions like IIT, and makers’ communities, but the innovator feels something positive will come of it all. “I’d met actor Shah Rukh Khan at the TED Talk in Vancouver in May, and he was extremely interested. A combination of politicians, influential people and Bollywood, who support good for life initiatives, will be powerful,” says Roosegaarde, who will be taking the tower to Mexico and Columbia next.
Promising a smog-free package campaign in the near future, he says his design firm, Studio Roosegaarde (with offices in Rotterdam and Beijing), is creating a comprehensive index of vegetation that will help reduce pollution, besides making scientific animations on how to create tunnels of wind through a city (to ensure air is never trapped), and even looking at converting sewers into one big filtration system. “By incorporating these ideas, we would be able to guarantee a reduction of 10-15% of pollution within a year. That is the big picture we are working towards,” he concludes.