▲ The Smog Free Tower installed in Beijing. Provided by studioroosegaarde.net
Look to the horizon. Most South Korean citizens will notice that edifices which used to stand out in obvious contrast to the clear, blue sky are slowly being consumed by a haze with a greyish tinge, to the extent that it is no longer possible to identify these buildings. Spring has returned, and the disappearing landmarks demonstrate that the fine dust emissions problem that has haunted South Korea for decades has returned as well. An innovative new development in the Netherlands aims to significantly ameliorate the fine dust problem; but will it be as effective as people hope?
A fine dust haze covered Seoul a whole two months earlier than usual in 2017, with weather reports informing viewers that high concentrations of fine dust were circulating throughout the city during January. Once again, people terrified for their health are arming themselves with flu masks and air purifiers in their homes, but only a few individuals realize exactly why fine dust is so harmful to the human body and where it comes from. Fine dust, or particulate matter 10 (PM10) in scientific jargon, is made up of minuscule particles of dust that fill the air. When breathed in, fine dust is able to slip past the filters in the lungs thanks to its size and cause severe, often irreparable damage to the body, circulatory system and even central nervous system.
The sources of fine dust emission vary depending on the time of year, but many have pointed to one constant, namely China. “If the United States (U.S.) was adjacent to South Korea instead of China, Korea’s fine dust concentration would be considerably lower, especially during spring and winter,” Professor Lee Meehye (Earth and Environmental Sciences) remarked. “China’s high population density, coupled with the substandard material used in China to warm homes during winter creates an unimaginable amount of fine dust, which is transferred over to South Korea via westerly winds," she added.
Some have identified the source of all the fine dust in South Korea as something more pernicious. In May 2016, the demand for mackerel plummeted as the Ministry of Environment (MoE) issued a report that the smoke from cooking mackerel might be to blame for the high levels of fine dust in South Korea. The report was later revealed to have been a misunderstanding, but the belief that casual activities such as cooking, driving or heating could worsen one’s health is not completely unfounded. “If one does not consider the effects of yellow dust, then winter is the weather with the most fine dust emissions due to the overuse of electric heaters,” Kim Honghyok (Research Lab of Environmental Epidemiology) noted.
Combating the Devils
Fortunately, Koreans do not have to look far for an innovative solution to the fine dust affliction. In nearby Beijing, a Dutch inventor has recently installed a three-story high air purifier dubbed the Smog Free Tower that eliminates the fine dust in the air via static electricity. The tower uses the innate polarity in fine dust to its advantage; after pulling in all the air in the vicinity, it lets out a stream of static electricity that attracts the fine dust to an inner repository, just like how a magnet draws metallic objects towards it. Subsequently, the tower releases the remaining air, now rid of all traces of fine dust, into the area. Notably, the collected fine dust is condensed into small diamonds, each of which is equivalent to “1,000 cubic meters of clean air” according to the developers.
While optimism prevails when it comes to the tower, there are those who lean more toward pessimism. “The air purifier is more symbolic than anything,” Professor Lee commented. “It will likely only be effective for cleansing polluted air concentrated around ground level; the purifier will probably be unable to detect or purify anything higher than that,” she added. The difficulty of choosing where to place the tower without being accused of bias is also cited as a reason to be skeptical of its prospects.
Scientists abroad have conceived of other inventive means of removing airborne fine dust; one such method is centered around launching a platoon of drones equipped with the fine dust filters. In the same vein, South Korea’s own Ministry of Science, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and Future Planning (MSIP) has introduced the Fine Dust National Strategy Project, which will provide better dust collection systems for factories and workplaces to prevent the emission of fine dust.
▲ Researcher Kim Honghyok. Photographed by Sohn Sumin
The Limits of Technology
Despite what its detractors are saying, many people are hailing the arrival of the Dutch air purifier in Beijing as a be-all, end-all solution to the fine dust problem; likewise, many experts in South Korea are looking to greater technological advances to solve the fine dust problem once and for all. However, the effectiveness of such measures is questionable at best, since they fail to touch upon the fundamental issue at the core of the fine dust problem. “It is naïve to think that a simple air purifier can magically restore clean air,” Kim warned, “similar to how making a patient’s symptoms disappear is not the same as curing a patient.”
Experts have pointed out that a large proportion of the fine dust that plagues cities such as Beijing and Seoul are produced by their thermoelectric power plants. These power plants are the preferred means around the world of creating electricity and other forms of energy, but are often overlooked during discussions pertaining to fine dust emission. Even in South Korea, the MoE has been hesitant to heavily reform thermoelectric power plants, settling for vague terms like step by step improvement and higher standards to describe how it plans to make these power plants more environmentally friendly. Without addressing the tremendous impact these power plants have on fine dust emissions, it is futile to hide the problem with better technology; given time, the problem will simply reemerge.
This does not mean that implementing ground-breaking technology is completely without value. “The Dutch air purifier can become a useful household device to alleviate domestic fine dust concerns,” Kim emphasized. Yet, although the Dutch air purifier and South Korea’s dust collection system might be able to mitigate the effect of fine dust across a block or two, they cannot be relied upon to relieve an entire city of its fine dust woes. Ultimately, one must never lose sight of the fact that the heart of the issue lies not with the lack of advanced technology but with the very industries that provide people with the energy they need to live their lives.