Air Pollution Got You Down? Clean It Up With This Smog-Sucking Vacuum Cleaner

The invention creates an electrostatic field to pull smog particles down to the ground, hopefully helping to clear up Beijing's polluted skies.

(Photo: Courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde)

Oct 25, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Staring out the window of his Beijing hotel room earlier this year, Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde was struck by the miasma of smog that frequently blanketed the city’s skyline. It's unfortunate, aesthetics aside, Beijing’s air pollution problem has posed significant health risks to local residents—but it also presented Roosegaarde with the inspiration for his latest invention.

The designer recently created a ground-level “vacuum cleaner” that sucks pollutants straight out of the air. The system uses buried coils of copper, which create an electrostatic field that attracts smog particles—dragging them to the ground below while revealing large pockets of clean air above.

Once the particles are at ground level, they form a tar-like substance that can be scraped away. But instead of disposing of it, Roosegaarde wants to use it to craft a wearable reminder of the importance of environmental responsibility. "We have this idea to make rings out of the tar, like wearable jewelry," he says. "So it can be like a souvenir."

Last week, the electrostatic vacuum cleaner was successfully tested at the Technical University of Delft, but the next step is to apply the concept to a public space. And plans for that are already under way; the designer’s Amsterdam-based firm, Studio Roosegaarde will erect a small park in Beijing where the copper coils will be buried in the ground. "It's a great radical project," he says. "I can't wait to walk in the public park in Beijing next year when it's ready."

The designer and his team are known for their innovative approach to urban issues. Their recent projects include the Netherland’s "Smart Highway" system, which replaces energy-draining streetlights with glow-in-the-dark lanes and signs, as well as the “Sustainable Dance Floor,” which harnesses the power of club dancers’ movements in order to generate electricity.

The firm’s attempt to relieve at least some of Beijing's air pollution problem can’t come soon enough; with record levels of pollutants contaminating the city’s air this week, environmental officials recommended that children, the elderly, and those with breathing problems stay indoors.

But Beijing’s air quality has been notoriously bad for some time, enough that it prompted another designer to address it earlier this year. In February, British artist Matt Hope launched a project he calls the Breathing Bicycle. The bike comes with a small generator that sits on its rear wheel and is piped to a facemask that's worn by the cyclist. As the pedals turn, air is sucked into the generator’s filtration system, separating out the dust and particles, and pumping clean air into the cyclist’s mask.

Beijing is just one of many cities in China suffering under the weight of rampant pollution. The country’s coal-burning plants, vehicle emissions and manufacturing industries regularly make headlines for the environmental damage they inflict. Just last week, the city of Harbin was also shut down when fine particulate matter readings in the air surged to record-breaking levels. In September, the Yangtze River turned bright red as a result of what many suspected was nearby industrial pollution. And this summer, algae blooms blanketed the coastline of the country’s Shandong province.

Roosegaarde’s invention may provide some much-needed relief for Beijing residents desperate to see their own sky and breathe in clean air, though he’s careful to mention that his vacuum cleaner is meant to address the effects of pollution, not its causes.

Lasting change will have to come from the city's leaders, who Roosegaarde believes are finally ready for the challenge. "They're very interested to make smart decisions, to think like a network, where the desires of the people and the effect those decisions have on them are more in balance."