The power of Smog Tower turns pollution into a chance to save ourselves

It's time to clear the air. No, really.
Brad Bergan
The Smog Free Tower.Studio Roosegaarde

More than six years have passed since the initial signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, and the threat posed to human life as we know it by the rapidly shifting environment has only increased.

In the words of an April IPCC report, the time is "now or never." Unlike any other in history, the fight to preserve the Earth's biosphere and atmosphere must continue to move forward on many fronts; not only in energy industries, but in agriculture, transportation, fashion, and more.

But perhaps the most direct and visceral way we can tell how well (or badly) the struggle is going comes from every breath we take. Not a single country met the World Health Organization's air quality standards in 2021, with New Dehli, India, maintaining its dubious lead as the most polluted capital, according to a Reuters report.

But a project that began in 2015 hopes to serve as a tangible beacon of light in the fight against pollution and perhaps as a warning to the madness of polluting the very thing every human needs to survive — air.

The first of Professor Daan Roosegaarde's smog-free towers was financed with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and was erected in 2015 in Rotterdam. Later, the designer went on a tour of China and convinced the government in Beijing to erect a smog-free tower in 2016. 

Since 2020, with Roosegaarde's assistance, similar smog-eating projects have followed in Poland, India, Mexico, and Colombia. It's not the first method of direct carbon capture technology — the United States passed a gigantic infrastructure bill with $3.5 billion earmarked for direct-air capture facilities throughout the nation.

But unlike most carbon-capture solutions, Roosegaarde's doesn't store waste underground — and it's already active in cities around the world.

Beijing, one of the world's most polluted cities, houses one of the futuristic towers, which sucks in around 30,000 cubic meters of smog particles per hour. Called the Smog Free Project, the structure filters smog via a scientific process that some may be tempted to call alchemy.

But it's not magic.

Using a proprietary process of positive ionization, the Dutch innovator and artist Roosegaarde's Smog Free Tower turns the waste particulate matter that is collected into attractive and unique rings — emblematic of his ambition to take sustainability beyond the moral imperative for sustainable change, into a place of pure creativity, where art and community spark the beginnings of new worlds.

Smog Free Tower provides clean-air spaces to seed innovative solutions to climate catastrophe

To Roosegaarde, who spoke with IE in a video interview, the Smog Free Rings symbolize the intersection of cutting-edge technology, design, and fashion — all pointing to a new ethos for a clean future, where citizens become part of the solution, instead of the cause of the end of the world.

But it all starts with his megalithic towers; sleek, minimalist, with layered vents that fold out like arms when activated, passersby wouldn't be blamed if they suspected these towers had achieved sentience. That is, until they took a deep breath.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Smog Free 1
A Smog Free Tower, with three men under a cloudy sky. Source: Studio Roosegaarde

IE: What’s the purpose of the “Smog Free" tower?

Daan Roosegaarde: We’re trying to show the beauty of a sustainable world. We’re interested in creating experiences that show the beauty of a better world. In Beijing — one day I could see the city, the next day I couldn’t see the other side of the street. 

How do we fix that — the long-term solution is clean energy, electric cars, and more bicycles. But I’m always trying to think about what I can do. Then the idea popped up: what if we just build the largest electrical vacuum cleaner for the air? Positive ionization is the only way to clean the air in a large-volume, low-energy way. And it creates clean air in a low-population kind of solution.

The residue is not waste.

Smog Free 2
Smog Free Towers create an oasis for natural life, including trees. Source: Studio Roosegaarde

With what forms of sustainable energy is your “smog-free” tower powered?

I think as we’re transitioning to a sustainable society, it’s about readdressing our values and our sense of beauty. The power source depends on location. If the weather allows, we go solar — otherwise, we check the grid and try to make sure it comes from renewable sources.

What kinds of pollution can your technology remove from the air?

We’re focusing on the small particles — the particles 40 or 50 times smaller than your hair. Each type of pollution is different if you put it under a microscope. Most of the polluted air we inhale consists of other kinds, but we’ve yet to realize that [in our technology].

Smog Free 3
Dogs are attracted to the towers because they smell the clean air. Source: Studio Roosegaarde

In what cities are “smog-free” towers or other products currently deployed?

Krakow, Delhi, Seoul, Beijing, Rotterdam, and several other cities.

In Krakow, we have tens of little dogs that hang around because they can smell the clean air. We do the research — but even the dogs can smell the difference. It’s important to validate the science, but it’s also important to make sure there are validations from the environment.

Sharing a ring is important — by buying one ring, you donate 1,000 cubic meters of clean air.

Earth Day is important, but if we want to care for the planet [and reverse the damage of modern society], only technology will make that possible. Combining creativity with tech can change [not only] our minds, [but also] our values, [and] that’s the real innovation here.

Is your patented ionizing technology capable of turning an entire city into a similarly bubble-shaped oasis of clean air? Are there concrete plans to scale up to urban levels?

Yeah, it’s definitely scalable. You can make it the scale of a high-rise building — we’ve also done bicycles. We can go bigger, we can go smaller — but of course, it will always be connected to government programs.

I don’t see it as a solution for everything, but it’s definitely part of a movement. We all have a right to clean air, but also a role to achieve clean air, and this is my role: to show why we can do it.

Smog Free 4
Roosegaarde believes we should leave Earth better than we found it. Source: Studio Roosegaarde

What would you tell others who believe individuals don’t have the power to make meaningful changes?

It’s never enough when one individual does it, alone.

To quote Marshall McLuhan: “There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” We try to do what we can and hope that’s enough. I don’t know if it’s enough, we try, we persevere, we fail, and that’s human.

In life, we should leave the Earth less harmful than we found it.

It’s not a utopia, or a perfect world, but more of a “protopia” — testing, learning.

Smoggy City
Like the IPCC says, "it's now, or never". Source: gece33/iStock

How can Smog Free towers or similar products help global industries or communities make good on emissions goals predicated by the Paris Climate Agreement?

I think for one it’s a local solution to provide clean air today — it can create places that have clean air for everybody. Secondly, it starts the discussion of value, of beauty; we have this right to clean air, and why are we not getting that…

The piece of bread, the car — we know the price for both, but when I ask what the price of clean air is, it sounds very abstract. It’s time to readdress the value and say we all have a right to clean air. We need to have that conversation, it’s a big problem, I just try to start small and make it bigger.

Smog Free 5
Smog Free Towers are built to be inherently inclusive, since anyone can visit the clean-air environment around them. Source: Studio Roosegaarde

Do you think the future of urban spaces will be a spotted field of “clean oases” vs. an increasingly polluted background urban sprawl?

You’re absolutely right — we’ve always said it’s public, there’s no entrance ticket — all our products, you pay tax so that’s your entry ticket. If you’re a citizen, you’re in.

We noticed some people in China who were capturing clean air from our product and selling it on the black market for roughly 200 RMB ($31.40). But of course, we would never ever do that.

Smog Free 6
A Smog Free Tower eclipsing a bolt of lightning. Source: Studio Roosegaarde

How did we come to view pollution as a given? What went wrong, in your view?

In 1970, the industrial revolution gave us a lot of progress but it came at a high cost. It’s the same as light pollution — in cities, we can no longer see the stars. It just happened, and you need a guy like me to say “that’s wrong, we should change that and give it a different answer.”

We cannot dominate nature, we cannot just pollute and expect no consequence. That’s the only long-term gain, also from an economical solution.

Smog Free 7
Lack of imagination may be one of the biggest reasons we've yet to take decisive action in the changing environment. Source: Studio Roosegaarde

Would you characterize the “Smog Free” ring as a purely symbolic object? How would you object to people that may consider them tokens of perfunctory philanthropy? Like merchandising?

We got so many requests from married couples who don’t want diamonds from Africa, they want to be part of the solution.

There’s a huge demand for it, it’s about love and relationships and beauty. And I think it’s really good that you make it tangible and talk about it and share it — always saw it as a really important part of the project.

We talk about money and tech — lack of imagination — how we want the future to look — and we work with project managers so we can show the beauty of the world in ways that are part of our daily lives.

But until then, we have a lot of work to do.

Editor’s Note: This is a part of our series PLANET SOLVERS, where IE explores climate challenges, solutions, and those who will lead the way.

Check out the other stories here: a timber cargo ship that sails without fossil fuels, a hydropanel that makes drinking water from air and sunlight, a high-flying kite that could power your home, and a genetically engineered super-tree to better capture carbon.

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