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This Poem Eats Pollution

The nanotech material could be used in posters and billboards to cut air pollution.
Image: University of Sheffield

Smog-gobbling buildings make a very attractive solution to battle our increasingly polluted air supply. Awesome-looking walls that literally digest pollutants air via a chemical coating? That sounds a lot more feasible than actually cutting down on emissions (though that's also very important).

But the thing about these kind of cool façades is you actually have to build a building, or drastically modify one, to make use of them—which limits their mainstream appeal. You can’t build a huge pollutant-purifying pavilion on every street. The University of Sheffield in the UK has a simpler solution: poetry.


Using catalytic technology developed by the university’s pro-vice-chancellor for science, Professor Tony Ryan, the university has unveiled a huge poem on the side of one of its buildings. A pollution-busting poem.

Titled “In Praise of Air” and penned by British poet Simon Armitage (also a professor at the university), the poem is printed on a 20-metre-tall piece of material that has a special photocatalytic coating containing nano-sized particles of titanium oxide. With sunlight and oxygen, these react with nitrogen oxide in the air and turn it into soluble nitrate.

The project page explains they will also turn VOCs—volatile organic compounds, which can be dangerous to our health—into “fatty acids and soaps.” And so you get to enjoy the beautiful fresh air immortalised in the words of the poem.

If it sounds like a bit of a gimmick, it is—it was timed to launch a poetry festival at the university. But that doesn’t mean it’s not doing any good. According to Ryan, “This poem alone will eradicate the nitrogen oxide pollution created by about 20 cars every day.”

The obvious take-away is that this kind of material could be used to replace existing billboards and posters along roads to reduce pollution from traffic passing through. That’s a lot more feasible than building whole smog-sucking architectures; Ryan said that using the material would add less than £100 ($170) to the cost of a poster.

The poem project follows on from Ryan’s previous work with artist and designer Helen Storey, in which they made “catalytic clothing” out of the same kind of treated textile.

At a time when the UK’s pollution is bad enough to earn legal reprisals from the EU, Paris is instituting temporary driving bans to keep its air clean, and Beijing continues to suffer under a swathe of smog, it might just be time to consider these kind of alternative measures to the world’s air problem.

As the poem ends, “My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.”