When it comes to raising awareness about air pollution, technology start-up Airlabs is no stranger to making a bold statement.
The company, alongside the internationally-renowned artist Michael Pinsky, is behind the Pollution Pods installation currently in residence at Somerset House in central London until Wednesday (25 April), a whisker away from some of the capital’s pollution hotspots (see airqualitynews.com story).
Coinciding with Earth Day (22 April) Pollution Pods, which is free to enter, aims to recreate the climate and pollution conditions in five global regions – including London, New Delhi, Sao Paolo, Beijing and Tautra, a remote peninsula in Norway. The installation spans a connected series of five geodesic domes each containing different scents, hazes and atmospheric conditions to represent the chosen area, from Sao Paolo’s ethanol-infused air, the suffocating New Delhi smog or the familiar diesel-heavy fug of London’s crowded streets. Air inside the Tautra dome, which is both the entrance and exit to the display, passes through Airlabs’ patented filtration technology, designed to demonstrate to visitors the difference between clean and dirty air.
Airlabs’ founder and chief executive Sophie Power spoke to airqualitynews.com about the eye-catching installation, and how the company is aiming to develop a range of products to empower people to improve the air around them.
“We’d like not to exist,” the Oxford graduate and former marketing and financial adviser jokes, adding: “If air pollution did not exist then there would be no reason for us to exist. But for us it’s about how do we use technology in a cost effective and energy-efficient way to reduce the impact of air pollution on people’s lives.”
A London resident, Ms Power founded the company in 2014 – when, whilst pregnant with her first son, she began to worry about the impact that the city’s dirty air would have on her child’s development. Working alongside co-founder Matthew Johnson, a Professor of Environmental Chemistry at the University of Copenhagen, Airlabs has pulled together a team of atmospheric chemists, air flow engineers, and sensor engineers working on a diverse set of projects to demonstrate how portable technology could help to provide clean air within polluted environments.
Aside from Pollution Pods, Airlabs’ other headline-grabbing projects included a collaboration with The Body Shop and outdoor advertising giant JCDecaux to install three ‘anti-pollution’ bus stops on major roads in Central London. Using an oxidation filtration system developed by the Airlabs team, the bus stops were designed to take in polluted air, remove some of the pollutants and throw out cleaner air for those waiting at the stops. Other initiatives include a clean air bench, using a similar principle to provide cleaner air over a small area within a more polluted space.
On the product-front, the company has launched the Airbubbl, an in-car filtration system which uses a re-engineered nano carbon filter which is designed to suck-in particulates and NO2 to protect drivers, who are often the most vulnerable to high air pollution on the road. Launched in November via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, the first Airbubbl units are expected to be delivered to customers this summer.
Ms Power notes that the Pollution Pods installation has been an effective way at engaging the public about air pollution, and about the potential for technology to play a role in providing a solution to the problem.
“It was really way to understand and get a physical reaction to air pollution,” she says. “We hear so much about it on the radio and on the TV but feeling it and going from different transitions to different cities really makes people think about air pollution in their daily lives slightly differently.”
On the reaction to the installation since it opened last Wednesday, she adds: “It has been an amazing reaction. For us it has been introducing our technology. That we can clean Nitrogen Dioxde and that this is something that impacts your life. Government policy needs to change but there are lots of ways you can involve technology before it does.
“You can recreate Norwegian air in London – I have been laughing watching people come from Sao Paolo in to Tautra and they see how much better it is. Thinking about our daily lives, getting a reaction to what we’re breathing and then the change to going into clean air has been really interesting to people.”
– Pollution Pods was originally commissioned by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology for Climart, and has received funding from Arts Council England. It can be viewed at the courtyard of Somerset House in London until Wednesday 25 April.