Ex­pats seek to beat smog with tech­nol­ogy

Dutch res­i­dents of Shang­hai ex­plore fu­tur­is­tic so­lu­tions to pu­rify city air

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA - By MATT HODGES in Shang­hai matthew@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Sev­eral in­de­pen­dent Dutch in­ven­tors are among a hand­ful of for­eign­ers who have found unique ways to com­bat China’s smog, as air pol­lu­tion in Shang­hai this win­ter soared to his­toric highs, mak­ing face­masks a sea­sonal fash­ion ac­ces­sory.

The haz­ardous haze com­pelled Shang­hai res­i­dent Niels Woelders to de­sign an elab­o­rate air-fil­tra­tion sys­tem in his apart­ment that he claims is sec­ond-to-none.

It has also prompted one Chi­nese-Aus­tralian cou­ple in the city to chase in­vestors for a pol­lu­tion-themed TV show.

Mean­while, de­signer Daan Roosegaarde has been build­ing a gi­ant ma­chine dubbed “smog” that he claims will be able to vac­uum the nox­ious fumes from Bei­jing’s skies.

If suc­cess­ful, it would rank as the world’s largest air pu­ri­fier.

One for­eign artist in Bei­jing is even work­ing on an air-pu­ri­fy­ing bi­cy­cle made us­ing parts of a trash can, a fighter-pi­lot mask and a pedal-pow­ered wind gen­er­a­tor.

It is hard to say whether me­dia re­ports that Bei­jing may pump ni­tro­gen into the skies to tackle the prob­lem are any more out­landish.

On a lighter note, pho­tos show­ing Bei­jing res­i­dents with cig­a­rette butts plug­ging their nos­trils re­cently went vi­ral online, prompt­ing se­ri­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tion by some Chi­nese news­pa­pers into the ef­fi­cacy of this smog-re­duc­ing tac­tic. The ap­par­ent mes­sage from an ex­as­per­ated but re­silient cit­i­zenry was: If you can’t beat it, laugh at it.

Heavy pol­lu­tion made for dis­tress­ing head­lines through­out 2013. It grounded flights in cities such as Harbin, the cap­i­tal of Hei­longjiang prov­ince, which is fa­mous for its mono­lithic ice sculp­tures. It shut­tered thou­sands of schools and con­struc­tion sites in Bei­jing. It also ramped up sales of air pu­ri­fiers on In­ter­net re­tailer Tmall.

Along with the strength­en­ing yuan, it was blamed for in­bound tourism to the cap­i­tal fall­ing more than 10 per­cent in 2013.

Some 1,100 km south in Shang­hai, the air qual­ity in­dex raced off-grid for sev­eral days in De­cem­ber — even ex­ceed­ing 500, a read­ing the United States con­sulate clas­si­fies as “be­yond in­dex” — caus­ing more ex­pats to re­con­sider their long-term plans.

The city re­sponded by clos­ing fac­to­ries and or­der­ing one in three gov­ern­ment-used cars off the road.

Three months ear­lier, at least one World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion body of­fi­cially ac­knowl­edged out­door pol­lu­tion as a car­cino­gen for the first time.

For Woelders, an elec­tri­cal engi­neer with sev­eral patents to his name, re­lo­cat­ing was less of an op­tion be­cause he has a Chi­nese wife and child here. In­stead, the re­source­ful Dutch­man bat­tened down the hatches and built an air­clean­ing unit, which he claims is more ef­fec­tive at elim­i­nat­ing harm­ful chem­i­cals and gases than most of the prod­ucts con­sumers can buy.

It op­er­ates on a seven-stage process that even fil­ters out bac­te­ria and viruses.

“My son’s kinder­garten has a rule about need­ing to keep the win­dow open to let in air,” he said. “But if you open the win­dow, you may as well switch off your air pu­ri­fier be­cause the pol­lu­tion will en­ter faster than the pu­ri­fier can clean it.

“My prod­uct is way more ben­e­fi­cial than most of what’s avail­able be­cause my main goal is to solve this prob­lem, not make a large profit.”

Woelders said his do-ity­our­self sys­tem took him about a year to build. It cost over 60,000 yuan ($9,840) and re­quired the use of more than 170 me­ters of tub­ing.

He also spent 20,000 yuan on a por­ta­ble air-pol­lu­tant tester, and last week forked out another 15,000 yuan on a sec­ond­hand piece of equip­ment from Swe­den that pro­duces ther­mal im­ages show­ing the flow of air in rooms to de­tect any po­ten­tial leaks.

“The main prob­lem with a lot of the prod­ucts on the mar­ket seems to be that they are bet­ter at deal­ing with PM2.5 (par­tic­u­late mat­ter small enough to pen­e­trate the lungs), but poor when it comes to PM0.3 and gases,” he said.

He said his in­ven­tion can re­move all PM2.5 and is also “20 to 25 times bet­ter” than other prod­ucts at elim­i­nat­ing PM0.3, in­fin­i­tes­i­mal pol­lu­tants that can bur­row deeper into the lung tis­sue.

It is equipped with enough ac­tive carbon to trap gases eas­ily, as well as other sys­tems to help elim­i­nate ex­cess buildup of carbon diox­ide, which hu­mans cre­ate nat­u­rally by breath­ing.

Th­ese sys­tems can both detox­ify other gases that are pro­duced at home when cook­ing or us­ing air-con­di­tion­ing units, and pro­vide a healthy sup­ply of oxy­gen so users do not, for ex­am­ple, wake up with headaches.

“Most prod­ucts have some ac­tive carbon but they don’t use a lot of it, and to func­tion well you would need a lot more,” he said, adding that he hopes to have a mar­ketable pro­to­type com­pleted this year.

De­spite such stop­gap mea­sures, real change can only come from the gov­ern­ment, the in­dus­trial sec­tor and con­sumers.

A re­cent sur­vey showed ve­hi­cle and fac­tory emis­sions make up roughly half of the sources of pol­lu­tion in Shang­hai, with dust from con­struc­tion sites and emis­sions from power sta­tions and burn­ing straw each con­tribut­ing a fur­ther 7 to 11 per­cent.

The gov­ern­ment aims to re­duce PM2.5 den­sity in North China by a quar­ter by 2017 by draw­ing on an al­lo­cated bud­get of 5 bil­lion yuan, Shang­hai Daily re­ported.

In hub cities such as Chengdu in Sichuan prov­ince, heav­ily pol­lut­ing fac­to­ries are be­ing re­lo­cated out­side city lim­its or re­fused per­mits, and of­fi­cials have been or­dered to rely more on pub­lic trans­port.

Rais­ing pub­lic aware­ness of the ef­fi­cacy of face masks and the im­por­tance of mak­ing en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive pur­chas­ing de­ci­sions is part of the man­date of Lucie Gu, who reg­u­larly blogs on such is­sues.

Hav­ing for­merly man­aged a video pro­duc­tion com­pany with her Aus­tralian hus­band, she is now try­ing to drum up fund­ing for a TV show.

“We’re try­ing to do a show about the en­vi­ron­ment, and the first episode we’re do­ing is about air qual­ity, just try­ing to raise aware­ness, and con­tact lo­cal gov­ern­ments and push the poli­cies. Even if it’s slow, some­one has to be the one push­ing,” she said. “We al­ready have some peo­ple in Bei­jing ready to spon­sor us.”

When it comes to am­bi­tious projects, few can ri­val the one Roosen­gaarde is work­ing on.

His elec­tro­mag­netic “vac­uum cleaner” uses sub­ter­ranean cop­per coils to suck in air­borne par­ti­cles by gen­er­at­ing an elec­tro­static field. Weird sci­ence it may be, but he claims to have been granted per­mis­sion by Bei­jing’s mayor to test his the­ory at one of the city’s parks.

Roosen­gaarde said a fin­ished sys­tem could be up and run­ning by mid-2014.

“It’s hack­ing the land­scape, in a po­etic way,” he was quoted as say­ing.


Dutch ex­pat Niels Woelders and his son Ouya show off the fan unit from an elab­o­rate air-fil­tra­tion sys­tem that Niels has in­vented. An elec­tri­cal engi­neer liv­ing in Shang­hai, Niels says his in­ven­tion is many times more ef­fec­tive than ex­ist­ing do­mes­tic air pu­ri­fiers.

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