Trees are one of the best things we have to clean the Earth’s air, but they have certain drawbacks: They need time and space to grow.
Enter the BioUrban, an artificial tree that sucks up as much air pollution as 368 real trees.
Designed by a Mexican start-up, the towering metal structure uses microalgae to clean carbon dioxide and other contaminants from the air, returning pure oxygen to the environment.
Measuring 4.2m tall and nearly 3m wide, the device looks like a cross between a tree and a postmodernist high-rise, with a steel trunk that radiates rising bands of concentric metal.
“What this system does, through technology, is inhale air pollution and use biology to carry out the natural process [of photosynthesis], just like a tree,” said Jaime Ferrer, a founding partner in BiomiTech, the company behind the invention.
Mexicans know a thing or two about air pollution.
Mexico City, a sprawling urban area of more than 20 million people, regularly grinds to a halt under air pollution alerts, triggered by emissions from the capital’s more than 5 million vehicles, its polluting industries and even the nearby Popocatepetl volcano.
Ferrer said that the company’s goal is to help such cities achieve cleaner air in targeted areas — those used by pedestrians, cyclists or older people, for example — when planting large numbers of trees is not an option.
Worldwide, about 7 million people die from exposure to air pollution each year, the WHO has said.
“We decided our job was to not just stand by and let people keep dying,” Ferrer said.
Launched in 2016, BiomiTech has so far “planted” three trees: one in the city of Puebla in central Mexico, where it is headquartered; one in Colombia; and one in Panama.
It has a contract for two more in Turkey and projects in the works to install them in Mexico City and Monterrey in northern Mexico.
A BioUrban typically costs about US$50,000, although the final price varies depending on the site.
Each tree weighs about 1 tonne and cleans as much air as 1 hectare of forest — the equivalent of what 2,890 people breathe in a day.
Ferrer said that the idea of the BioUrban is not to replace real trees, but complement them in areas where planting a forest would not be viable.
“They can be used in high-traffic areas, transportation terminals, where you can’t just plant a hectare of trees,” he said. “The system isn’t going to end air pollution in Mexico City, but it can alleviate the problem in high-traffic areas.”
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