You have 2 minutes left to live. You aren’t sick, your organs still function normally, you aren’t doing anything very risky, yet you are only 2 minutes away from death. The only way to keep yourself alive is to take a breath of air.
Breathing is a necessity for all living things. It’s how we get oxygen into our cells so that our body can do its basic functions. This is a universal right that every person should be allowed access to. Unfortunately, a majority of the world does not get to enjoy this right.
Breathing clean air is something we all take for granted, and it should be that way. However, not everyone gets to breathe the same pure air that those in developed countries enjoy. According to Health Canada, air pollution kills nearly nine million people in the world. Pakistan, one of the worst polluted countries in the world, attributes 128,000 annual deaths to air pollution. You might be wondering why this is only an issue in developing countries and not a huge concern in cities like Toronto. This problem has multiple reasons but it can be narrowed down to one main cause:
Incomplete combustion of impure fuels
When you heat up a hydrocarbon (like methane), it reacts with oxygen in the air and burns. In ideal circumstances, this should result in carbon dioxide and water vapor being produced. Practically, this never happens in the real world and there are always other chemicals/particles created by combustion. For example, when burning diesel under high heat and pressure, the nitrogen and oxygen react to become nitrogen oxides.
In Lahore, Pakistan, brick kilns, agricultural burning, and impure diesel are the worst offenders, releasing hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. This has created a dense smog in the streets that citizens are forced to walk through. When inhaled, these chemicals can cause long term health problems like asthma, heart diseases, and even cancer. It is estimated that 9% of annual deaths in Pakistan are from air pollution, which might not seem like a lot until you realize that it is nearly 4 times the total number of deaths from COVID-19. When people step outside in Pakistan, they have to constantly worry about the air they breathe. Developing countries suffer under corrupt governments who ignore the effects of air pollution, allowing it to reach extremely dangerous levels. Developed countries don’t see similar effects because cleaner fuels are used and stable economies can support proper air regulations.
But there is no longer a need to despair. There is a solution.
All major cities have something in common which you know you can find, yet barely ever notice: sidewalks. We decided to use this free space to stop air pollution using special tiles which purify the air. By incorporating our technology into sidewalks, we can cover a large surface area without causing any disturbance to pedestrians. These tiles have 3 layers which have separate functions:
Layer 1: Titanium dioxide
First, we needed to find a way to get the particles from the air to the tiles on the ground. If you remember physics in school, then you know that objects with opposite charges attract each other. Since the pollutants in the air are positively charged, we needed a negatively charged material that would attract particles from the air. We decided to use a mineral form of titanium dioxide called anatase that would have a natural negative charge. This anatase also allows small particles in the air to pass through. This layer is what attracts or “sucks in” the pollution in the air. According to research from government organizations, a square metre of titanium dioxide can attract nearly 60mg of harmful particles every day. While this may not seem like a large amount, the particles are incredibly small, and we will have thousands of such tiles in a single city. The particles that are attracted then move onto the next layer.
Layer 2: Bacterial enzymes
Second, the air needed some way to be purified. The particles would need to be converted to safer compounds. Bacteria of the Rhodococcus genus are very effective at breaking down hydrocarbons in the air. This is due to a certain enzyme called cytochrome P450. This enzyme is a monooxygenase which means that it acts as a catalyst that allows chemicals to react with oxygen. In this case, it causes hydrocarbons to react with oxygen which converts it to safer compounds. Using the bacteria directly would be very costly since they would need constant care and maintenance to stay alive. To eliminate the cost of sustaining a living organism, we have decided to extract the cytochrome P450 enzyme from the bacteria and mix the enzyme with a preservative and apply it to the tile as a second layer. Since this enzyme acts as a catalyst and not a reactant, it will not be depleted and has no limitations to efficiency. This enzyme is the primary substance that purifies the pollutants in the air.
Layer 3: Concrete
Finally, this tile will not be an entirely separate product. Instead, it will be built on top of pre-existing paved concrete. By using existing pavements as a base there will be no need for new concrete. Concrete is expensive due to being a finite resource and using more of it would not be a sustainable practice. By building upon existing concrete, we are reducing costs while increasing sustainability. Additionally, concrete will reinforce our design, making it stronger and allowing it to be walked on by hundreds of people daily.
VAE has the power to purify all the air pollution in a city. Since the bacterial enzyme has no limits and the titanium dioxide is able to attract particles in the air, then this tile does not have any limitations other than manufacturing and installation. We believe that if all the sidewalks in a city were replaced with VAE tiles, then 100% of the existing air pollution can be removed in a year with no drawbacks. This means that if every pavement tile in the world was a VAE tile, then air pollution would no longer be an issue.
Air pollution takes millions of lives every year. It is not something to be ignored. People should not have to worry about sickness when they breathe, yet the citizens of so many countries still do. This doesn’t have to continue, and with VAE, it won’t. Our mission is to make clean air accessible to everyone around the globe and give people back their lives.