The Washington Post

China’s air pollution prompts creative, sometimes wacky, solutions

Tourists in masks use cellphone cameras to snap shots of themselves on a heavily polluted day in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. (Alexander F. Yuan/AP)

This is how bad the smog has gotten in China.

Officials are looking at washing away air pollution with artificial rain or sucking it up with giant vacuum cleaners. Shanghai has given its cops mini-filters to put in their noses.

Beyond the government, a cottage industry has popped up, tinkerers who are producing anti-pollution devices — some practical, others wacky artistic statements.

There is a bicycle that purifies air as you pedal. And a growing spectrum of do-it-yourself air-filtering machines, from simple duct-tape concoctions to elaborately engineered models.

British artist Matt Hope, 37, lives in Beijing and after encountering the pollution here created a bicycle that filters air as you pedal along. (Matt Hope/Matt Hope)

A workshop in Shanghai teaches people how to make an air filter to combat pollution by buying a cheap HEPA filter and strapping it to a fan. (James Le/Smart Filter)

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

“It’s a perfectly natural response when you are confronted with a problem,” said Gong Zhiqiang in Beijing, a mechanical engineer who spends his nights fine-tuning his designs for amateur air filters.

After Gong posted his prototypes online in 2012, requests flooded in for step-by-step instructions. Obsessing over air, he said, has become a nationwide pastime.

The urgent search for ways to alleviate pollution has been spurred by the problem’s growing visibility as well as the public’s increased access in recent years to hourly measurements of the filth they’re breathing.

Chinese cities have some of the world’s most polluted air. The haze is often so thick it blots out the sun. On especially bad days in cities such as Harbin, in northeast China, residents can’t even see across the street. Airports struggle regularly to land planes in thick fog. A study published in the British medical journal the Lancet attributed 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010 to bad air.

Chinese citizens wear masks on a hazy day in Beijing. (Rolex Dela Pena/EPA)

Other countries have cut air pollution by limiting emissions from factories and cars. China’s leaders have been reluctant to sacrifice economic growth, and state-run industries have used their economic clout to resist stricter rules.

So people have looked to more novel ideas.

This animation, produced by Studio Roosegaarde, shows how a giant electrostatic "vacuum cleaner" would be used to attract smog particles. The video shows the machine miraculously cutting a small circle in the city's haze to reveal blue skies and a shining sun.

In the western city of Lanzhou — deemed by the World Health Organization as having the worst air in China — officials have proposed digging gullies into surrounding mountains. Others have talked in recent years of leveling mountains altogether. But the ideas, requiring mountain-sized funding, have stalled.

On the sci-fi end of the spectrum, a Dutch artist is designing a giant electrostatic “vacuum cleaner.” The device — which resembles a giant hula hoop — uses an electrified wire to attract smog particles. The artist’s firm says it has successfully tested prototypes. In an online video demonstrating the concept, the machine miraculously cuts a small circle in the city’s haze to reveal blue skies and a shining sun.

“It’s not going to cure smog on a large scale, but at least we can remind people what clean air looks like,” said artist Daan Roosegaarde. He said Beijing’s mayor has shown interest. Beijing officials declined to comment, but the Dutch Embassy, which has been assisting Roosegaarde, confirmed that he has meetings scheduled with Beijing officials next month.

A news report by Caixin media in China shows a segment on the smog vacuum project and how it would work.

Wash and rinse

But what’s garnered the most attention in recent weeks is confirmation that the Chinese government is researching the use of artificial rain to rinse out bad air.

A document released by China’s Meteorological Administration in November said that all local weather officials would be able by 2015 to use artificial rain to clear away smog. Shortly after, in a closed meeting, Beijing’s vice mayor told subordinates his city was researching the method, according to state-run media.

Bloggers reacted with equal parts surprise, jokes and skepticism. Officials in the city and Meteorological Administration have refused to elaborate further. Reached by phone, a Beijing government spokesman confirmed the vice mayor’s comment but declined to say more.

In many ways, the idea is unsurprising. Because of China’s chronic water shortages, it has invested heavily in artificial rain since the late 1950s. The country boasts the world’s largest rainmaking force, with 6,902 cloud-seeding artillery guns, 7,034 launchers for chemical-bearing rockets, more than 50 planes and 47,700 employees, according to a 2012 government tally.

A Chinese worker fires rockets for cloud-seeding in an attempt to make rain in Huangpi, central China. (AFP/Getty Images)

The massive infrastructure was most famously deployed in Beijing to ensure clear skies for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics.

But applying rainmaking to smog is a relatively new idea. Several scientists at government think tanks and universities declined a journalist’s requests this month to discuss it. Such information remains, like many things in China, under the tight control of the government.

According to the few scientists who were willing to talk, as well as explanations in state-run media, the science involves using rockets, cannons or planes to sow clouds with catalysts such as dry ice, silver iodide and salt powder. The substances augment the clouds’ natural rainmaking processes.

The resulting rainfall in theory scavenges polluting particles from the air through a process called “wet deposition.”

What goes up

But the plan has serious flaws, many experts say.

The right moisture conditions are needed for cloud-seeding to work. The location of a city’s largest concentration of pollution must be determined. And the rainfall can be fickle and difficult to aim.

Smog shrouds buildings in Changsha, in Hunan province. (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

A streetcleaner works in Wuhan’s heavy smog in Hubei province. (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

“It’s complicated. Scientists here can’t even agree on how much rainfall cloud-seeding actually causes,” said Wang Shaowu, a retired atmospheric professor at Peking University. “Say you have 20 millimeters of rain” — about 0.8 inches — “did 5 millimeters come from artificial methods or 15 millimeters?”

Then there’s the matter of unintended side effects.

Whatever chemicals go up to seed the clouds eventually come down, said Zhao Lijian, a pollution expert at the Energy Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes clean energy. “You’re also sending all those heavy pollutants in the air into the water system.”

And there’s the issue of stealing rain from other areas where it might have fallen.

Hard choices

The only real solution to China’s pollution problems, Zhao and other scientists stress, is to cut emissions from its power plants, factories and cars. But that is hugely difficult.

It would mean cutting into China’s heavy dependence on coal-burning electrical plants. It also would require taking on powerful state-owned industries, such as China’s oil and power companies, which have long resisted stricter environmental controls.

But Chinese leaders recently unveiled an ambitious $280 billion plan that includes limiting coal use and banning high-polluting vehicles.

Salivating at the prospects, U.S. and European clean-technology companies are stampeding to sell China solutions. A U.S. Department of Commerce analysis has predicted that China’s clean-tech market will reach $555 billion by 2020.

The market has benefited small-scale vendors such as Gong, who has sold more than 40 of his homemade air filters in the past two years.

As he and his wife have talked about having a baby, he’s begun thinking about pollution problems their child might face.

“I want to design a really good mask for children,” he said. “I’ve got a few ideas already.”

Liu Liu and Li Qi contributed to this report.

William Wan is the Post's roving national correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He previously served as the paper’s religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent and for three years as the Post’s China correspondent in Beijing.


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