Say "anti-pollution tower' and watch the faces of pollution-weary sufferers light up.
Say "anti-pollution tower" and watch the reaction of skeptics; better still, hear them bring up China's experience.
Say "anti-pollution tower" and hear air pollution scientists tell you it isn't the solution--indeed, nowhere close to the solution--and that filtering outdoor air is inefficient.
Now put all this aside for a moment, and with an open mind, just examine a small, Pune-based startup's filter-less, self-cleaning and maintenance-free anti-pollution tower, 30,000 compact units of which they are ready to install for free all over Delhi in dead spaces like road dividers, pavements and footpaths. Their revenue model? Advertising.
A Care for Air colleague met this company at TieCon, Delhi in November 2017, the annual networking conference of The IndUS Entrepreneurs and vacillated between disbelief and excitement--until several emails and meetings with the inventor and his partner convinced her that this was for real. But it was still a pie in the sky until that magical moment when one of the co-founders and CEO Irfan Pathan called her one smoky January morning with the news that they had finally got the go-ahead to install five such towers in Delhi as a pilot. It still wasn't untill mid-February that the company managed to get all the requisite permissions in place to install the first such tower-in-a-box just a few feet tall--sucking in air pollutants at a jammed intersection. It will run for 24 hours to test its viability, and Pi Green Tech, the startup, has contracted an independent testing company of international repute to measure its air cleaning capability.
“It can remove up to 95% of pollutants--PM10, 2.5 and 1--from the air it sucks in,” says Pathan confidently. The best part about these machines isn't that they are filter-less, or that they are zero-maintenance, or that they remove nano particles that even indoor air purifiers can't remove, or even that they can communicate via SMS alerts with human supervisors. The best part is that once the project scales up, all the particles captured by the machines can be responsibly disposed off via a tie-up with a hazardous waste company, which makes this sustainable.“ It collects particulate matter to the last bit and converts it into something useful. For example, the entire carbon can be fixed--and used to make shoe-polish or black ink,” says Zuber Shaikh, the inventor of this technology, disclosing that they have a potential Maharashtra-based hazardous waste disposal collaborator waiting in the wings, if they get the go-ahead.
Zuber Shaikh and Rizwan Shaikh have also created the company's other product: the Carbon Cutter Machine--an attachment which sucks the PM from vehicle exhaust and has already made some waves at startup product competitions. “We have been slogging for two years to see this through”, says Pathan.
How is their anti-pollution tower different from the one in China? “This one has no filters and requires almost zero maintenance. It can be placed anywhere: footpaths, dividers, parks. When we filed our application under the Patent Cooperation Treaty, we discovered that none among 152 countries had used our technology,” revealed Pathan. It takes up to 7 years to be granted a patent in India, which is why they want to keep the technology a secret. However, what they will tell us at this point is that the secret technology enables a snowball effect of sorts, causing bigger pollution particles to latch on to the smaller, more harmful ones. Polluted air enters the inlet, and the pollutants trickle down into a storage box which, when filled, sends authorities an automated message via SMS. An outlet releases clean air into the vicinity. The entire process ‘cleans up’ the air at 2000 cubic feet per minute, using up just 3 units of electricity a day.
Trials across Pune have indicated that the Tower is 95% effective in reducing air pollution. Pathan says he would be ready to install 30,000 of these for free all over Delhi if the government gave them the green signal. The towers would double as billboards to generate revenue, a trend that could potentially ‘de-commercialise’ outdoor advertising. “But it isn't the branding space we are looking to disrupt,” says Pathan. “It's the pollution.”
“Everyone asks us by how much our towers can bring down Delhi's pollution and I always say, that's like asking how many Aquaguards you need to clean up the ocean,” says Pathan.
But before getting into that, how about if these are placed inside hospitals, or areas of high footfalls like metro stations, inside rail carriages, inside public buses, inside school classrooms or even corridors? Or areas of high aerobic activity like gymnasiums, playing fields, public parks? Both Pathan and Shaikh nod. “Place it wherever. It will suck out all pollutants.”
As clean air advocates, we still believe it is critical to implement a long-term strategy to stop harmful emissions at source. But as residents of one of the most polluted cities in the world, we are desperately looking for some relief in the interim, wherever we can get it. Even to fight for clean air, one has to first survive pollution. So thank you, Mr Imran Husain and the Delhi government, for keeping an open mind and giving new technologies like this a chance to succeed!
Cleaning up after polluting is by no means the ideal solution, but since it looks like none of the polluters are going to stop emitting or combusting in the immediate future--especially in a country which is following the path of growth over development--this new technology and the confidence of the young inventors deserves every chance that it can get. At least one thing is for sure: relatively speaking, this will be a much better solution than large investments of public money in
buying expensive outdoor vacuum cleaners or using scarce water resources to hose down trees and outdoor dust.
And if nothing else, at least schools, hospitals, malls and large indoor public spaces can use this product, without creating the added burden of disposing filters into our already overflowing landfills...
(Meanwhile, companies with CSR funding: if you don't have clean air in your multi-storied office spaces, please use those funds to get this; buy it for your indoor public spaces, your cafes, libraries and reception areas at least! At Rs 3 lakh - 5 lakh apiece, you will be getting hidden gains with higher productivity and lower illnesses, not to mention the good karma of wellness for your employees!)
Disclaimer: These are the personal views of the authors and not of Care for Air. Directly cleaning outdoor air is a sub-optimal strategy, simply based on mass-balance considerations. A more efficient way of protecting the public is to address high-emitting sources of pollution and it is far more effective to clean indoor air in areas of high footfalls.
Aakriti briefly volunteered as Manager, Community Outreach at Care for Air. It was a dark, smoggy morning in New Delhi when she wrote to us, wanting to help. She soon became responsible for handling content and communication at CFA. We wish her luck in her future pollution-related ventures.
Jyoti Pande Lavakare
Jyoti Pande Lavakare is an independent columnist, financial journalist and writer who has lived and worked in Britain, the United States and India, writing for international and Indian publications. In a past life, she produced youth programs for radio and television and her children's fiction appeared in Hachette anthologies. She has a Masters in Economics and currently lives in New Delhi with her husband, teens and a wilting kitchen garden.
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