Can Beijing Turn Smog into Diamonds? An Artist Bets His Own Money On It

Smog Free Tower, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Smog Free Tower, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Photographer: Pim Hendriksen/Studio Roosegaarde

Liu Min, an expectant mother in Beijing, is worried about her baby's future. She gets anxious when she thinks of the youngest lung cancer patient in China, who's only eight years old. Air pollution is definitely on the minds of Beijing citizens—and now it’s driven an artist more than 4,000 miles away to take action.

Dutch artist, entrepreneur and designer Daan Roosegaarde
Dutch artist, entrepreneur and designer Daan Roosegaarde
Photographer: Arie Kievit/Studio Roosegaarde

Dutch designer and architect Daan Roosegaarde has created a 23-feet-tall, air-cleaning “Smog Free Tower” and he’s ready to ship it to Beijing if he gets a green light from the mayor’s office, with whom he says he’s had five rounds of talks. His tower works like a huge outdoor air purifier, and Roosegaarde says it can clean 30,000 cubic meters of air in an hour. That means in one-and-a-half days, it could clean the air contained in a typical football stadium. It works through ionization technology, similar to how hair sticks to a balloon’s surface. The tower consumes a small amount of power, equal to a home-use water boiler. He says he has successfully cleaned a park in Rotterdam and now he’s looking for partners in China to build and install his towers there.

The tiny toxic particles known as PM 2.5 can be inhaled into the lungs. Research from Berkeley Earth, a non-profit that conducts scientific investigations on climate change, shows that 1.6 million people die each year of air pollution in China—a harsh reality of modernization. Beijing has rolled out various measures, including tax reductions for buying hybrid cars, but the four-day stretch of smog at the beginning of December, the worst of the year, reveals there is still a serious problem. The choking haze is a scourge that residents like Liu Min know well.

“I would really like to do it in Beijing first. It is the city [that] inspired me to do this,” Roosegaarde says, adding that he was convinced after more than two years of trips to the Chinese capital. Now he faces a new hurdle: the mayor’s office keeps postponing. “It's a very sensitive, political topic.”

He says he has been approached by air conditioner makers too, including household names in China such as Gree Electric Appliances Inc. and Broad Group, but he decided to work with public interests first, through local government and possibly Tsinghua University, who has also shown interest, according to Roosegaarde. “You have to build trust; it's China,” he says.

Smog Free Ring
Smog Free Ring
Photographer: Pim Hendriksen/Studio Roosegaarde

Roosegaarde first came up with the idea of a Smog Free Tower while visiting Beijing as a speaker at a design event in 2013. He runs a studio in the Netherlands that produces design and architecture projects, with contracts and commissions from museums and local governments. The tower is the first project he started with his own money. In July, he listed the project on Kickstarter with a goal of raising 50,000 euros ($54,350) and it ended up raising 113,153 euros in two months. One of the rewards he offers donors is a ring set with a cube formed from collected smog particles, which are 42 percent carbon. And if you place “carbon under high pressure, you get a diamond.”

Roosegaarde’s latest goal is to install his towers in 20 to 25 public parks in Beijing. He plans to offer leases to bring down costs. He would like to expand later to other developing nations like India and Mexico, which face similar air pollution problems.

Requests for comment through calls and emails to the Beijing mayor's office were not returned.

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