From suffocating smog to futuristic fuel: Air purifier turns pollution into power

A device that generates hydrogen gas while purifying air could one day be used to simultaneously combat urban pollution and provide an environmentally friendly fuel source for vehicles.

Developed by scientists from the University of Antwerp and the University of Leuven in Belgium, the device only requires light to work, making it a promising technology for cities looking to improve their air quality.

“We use a small device with two rooms separated by a membrane,” said study lead author professor Sammy Verbruggen, from the Universities of Antwerp and Leuven.

“Air is purified on one side, while on the other side hydrogen gas is produced from a part of the degradation products. This hydrogen gas can be stored and used later as fuel, as is already being done in some hydrogen buses, for example. “

The device is currently only available as a prototype, but the researchers plan to scale it up to be used in industrial-level settings, where it could be used to combat the ever-growing problem of urban air pollution.

Air pollution in California, the US

The device relies on specific nanomaterials within the its membrane, which act as a catalyst to help convert air pollution into hydrogen.

Previously these materials have been used to convert water into hydrogen, however the researchers found that using polluted air was not only also possible, but potentially more effective.

“These catalysts are capable of producing hydrogen gas and breaking down air pollution,” explained Verbruggen. “In the past, these cells were mostly used to extract hydrogen from water. We have now discovered that this is also possible, and even more efficient, with polluted air.”

With a prototype now demonstrated, the researchers plan to develop an industrial-scale version.

“We are currently working on a scale of only a few square centimetres. At a later stage, we would like to scale up our technology to make the process industrially applicable,” explained Verbruggen.

“We are also working on improving our materials so we can use sunlight more efficiently to trigger the reactions. “

The prototype device. Image courtesy of UAntwerpen and KU Leuven

Air pollution is a problem attracting increasing attention in much of the world. The UK government, for example, is currently being sued for repeatedly failing to act on the problem, having taken little action after repeatedly breaching legal air pollution limits in many of its urban areas.

A growing body of research is also drawing links between air pollution and poor health. A study published in ACS Nano in April suggested that nanoscale particles in polluted air could be contributing to heart disease and strokes, while a study by Yale School of Public Health found that air pollution contributes to higher levels of depression.

Other conditions linked to poor air quality include lung cancer and respiratory diseases such as asthma.

It is hoped that the research, which is published today in the journal ChemSusChem, could help to combat the problem.

London looks to become “the world’s leading smart city” with chief digital officer role

Sadiq Kahn, the Mayor of London, has announced that the city is for the first time recruiting for a chief digital officer, as part of a bid to become the world’s leading smart city.

The new position was announced in a tweet today by Khan, who linked to the official advert for the £106,952 a year job.

“The Mayor has decided to appoint London’s first Chief Digital Officer to help him make London the world’s leading smart city,” the advert says. “As London’s CDO, working in the Mayor’s Office, you will convene GLA officials, the Smart London Board, local authorities and the technology sectors to encourage collaboration and adoption of common standards around data and service transformation, to drive the development of smart city technology, and to build London’s reputation as the city that the world looks to for leadership in urban innovation.”

The decision has been met with approval from many of the city’s digital-focused companies, with the announcement being seen as a positive step in recognising the need for further technological advancements.

“The Mayor is right to highlight that transforming the capital into a ‘smart city’ is a critical need in the coming years,” said Dale Lovell, chief digital officer and UK managing director of ADYOULIKE, an advertising technology company.

“London’s incoming CDO will be tasked with radically transforming how the city does business and the role will be focused on helping to pioneer new technology sectors, encouraging collaboration and adopting common standards around data and service transformation.”

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, during the unveiling of the world’s first hydrogen-powered bus in 2016. Image courtesy of Martin Hoscik /

The role is a relatively new concept for cities, with New York among one of the few world cities to have the official position, which is currently held by Sree Sreenivasan. Even among companies the role remains a fairly recent development.

“Ten years ago the job of chief digital officer simply didn’t exist. Even as late as 2013, there were only 500 CDOs across the globe. The ‘digital’ aspect of organisations was also something that was split across multiple people,” explained Lovell.

“However, with the world increasingly adopting a ‘connected’ lifestyle, with little downtime from their digital devices, the role is now essential, not only for companies but also for government and regional authorities.”

However, with Brexit fast approaching and London likely to need to reposition itself on the global market, the role is likely to prove to be immensely challenging for the person appointed.

“The single most important factor for the success of this role will be the CDO’s ability to be flexible. With the uncertainty of Brexit far from over and an environment of ever changing technology, London’s CDO must be able to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances while putting London’s best interests first,” said Lovell.

“The next ten years will see a rapid digitalisation and automation of many key services; with public expectation around the services they receive increasingly built around digital infrastructure. It’s a big challenge to change London, but one that needs to happen now.”