Air pollution: a public health concern

Cycling home over Waterloo bridge a couple of weeks ago I was surprised by my breathlessness and coughing fit that ensued. At first I thought it was a testament to my fitness levels, but turning on the news that night my concern grew from its initial trivial and personal worry.

The cause of all this, as I am sure you have all been reading about, was the unprecedented levels of air pollution which set upon the capital earlier this month.

london smog

Some claimed it was a result of the weather: low wind and high air pressure. While weather contributes to high air pollution episodes, this isn’t an issue to be dismissed.

The UK has broken EU air quality regulations every year since 2010.[1] We often complain about China’s level of pollutants and smog which engulfs its cities. Well, on several occasions between 17th and 24th January, air quality was worse in the UK capital than in Beijing. It is estimated that air pollution causes almost half a million premature deaths in Europe alone.[2]

Hopefully my aggregation of recent news facts should convince you that this is a serious issue.

Indeed, more needs to be done on the international stage with stricter enforcement of legislation. Coming down hard on car companies involved in recent emissions scandals is a good start. Governments also need to be held accountable to ensure they stay under legal air pollution limits.

These reactive punishments will hopefully deter such practices in the future. However, to effectively combat air pollution a proactive policy is necessary; a policy at a political and institutional level but also at a personal one.

In a recent discussion about a circuit-level electricity monitoring technology we are working with, part of its value was neatly summed up by the simple sentence: “you can’t make decisions with your eyes closed.” The same sentence applies here too. A range of air quality sensors and geo-mapping technologies are being utilised to understand where and when pollution is at its worse.

This data alone, though, is not the complete solution to combating air pollution and technology will play a significant role in combating and limiting air pollution in our cities. Chemists and physicists are applying smart technologies to remove toxins from the air. For example, Metal Organic Frameworks, a class of porous nanomaterials, could be used to adsorb certain gasses from the atmosphere or to scrub waste gasses from industrial processes. These porous nanomaterials could also be utilised to make viable alternative fuel sources for transport e.g. Natural Gas Vehicles.

On the topic of transport and vehicles, the proliferation and uptake of battery technology will be significant over the next few years. Cars contribute greatly to the pollutants in the air, and advanced battery technology will enable Electric Vehicles viable for the mass market. Batteries will also be hugely significant in developing  sustainable grid infrastructure, unlocking flexibility in consumption and generation assets.

Air quality is a major public health concern. These technologies will play an important role in reducing the amount of pollutants in the atmosphere.



Water: it’s a precious resource, let’s start treating it as such!

I initially started writing this blog in the summer when it was so hot that I was struggling to sleep and was drinking water like it was on tap (but it is on tap Peter!).

It was late June at the time and I had decided that it was time for my second annual water blog.  Last year, I wrote about the impact that drought was having on hydro-electricity production in Brazil and agriculture in California, and how increasing droughts could lead to a greater focus on wind, solar and waste to energy technologies, particularly if they could reduce water usage, or, in an example of the latter, extract water from waste.

Unfortunately, although I started the blog, I didn’t get to finish it for various reasons but a realisation in early December motivated me to dust it off (and I promise it had nothing to do with a pressing blog deadline!).  Back then, before the January rains came, it seemed to me that we were having quite a dry winter up to that point, and not that I love the rain, but I didn’t feel this was something to celebrate.  I wasn’t sure at this stage whether this was just distorted perception or if we really were experiencing an unseasonably dry period.

Then I read that 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded, which further motivated me to conclude this blog, especially when Met Office data for December confirmed that rainfall was below normal almost everywhere in England with only 42% of average rainfall overall.

The severity of the crisis

660 million people do not have access to improved drinking water, and while this number is an improvement on previous estimates, it is still a huge number1.  Another 1.2 billion people were estimated to live in areas of physical water scarcity2.  The World Economic Forum ranked the water crisis as the risk likely to have the greatest impact on society3,4.

It’s everyone’s challenge

This year I want to challenge readers (no matter how few you are) to consider how you too can address this great water challenge that we face. And it is a great challenge, even if it’s severity and importance appears to be lost amongst the news of melting glaciers, rising seas, floods and storms associated with climate change.  Equally, when you live in the UK or Ireland, it’s hard to digest the message that there is a water crisis when it appears to rain so much. But, as the Met Office data for December suggests we are not immune to suffering a shortage.

So, whether it’s recycling water, being more efficient with the water you use, capturing rainwater for domestic/commercial use or using cleaner processes that reduce the treatment required for waste water, make a contribution to the challenge.

Addressing the water challenge

Thankfully, there is a host of technologists and companies seeking to tackle the water challenge and I wanted to share a few of those that have recently caught my eye:

  • NVP Energy have solved the challenge of sustainably treating low strength wastewater including at low temperatures using anaerobic bacteria. It reduces CODs by 80%+ and TSS by up to 50%. It generates high quality biogas as a by-product which can be used as an onsite energy source and produces 90% less sludge than alternative treatments.
  • CustoMem is addressing the contamination of water supplies by industrial contaminants. It seeks to treat the 0.04% of micropollutants that are difficult to capture and are also highly toxic such as heavy metals. Furthermore, the solution not only captures the pollutants but enables them to be recycled.
  • MIT researchers have developed the solar vapor generator which uses inexpensive materials to clean and desalinate water. The generator consists of a metallic film, a bespoke sponge and bubble wrap as its skin. It heats, boils and evaporates the water, leaving behind unwanted products.
  • Sundrop farms have sought to address not only the water shortage but also the food and energy shortages in the design of their solar powered sea water desalination plant to irrigate their tomato crops.

Facing into 2017, this has all re-affirmed to me how critical the climate change and water scarcity challenges are for humanity. It has motivated me further to contribute to the solution by supporting the technologists seeking to commercialise solutions and has reinforced how these are everyone’s battles.