Science News 31/03/2010

Unique and innovative solution to air pollution

When doctors told Kamal Meattle that his lung capacity had dropped to 70%, and it was Delhi’s air that was killing him, he had two choices: leave friends, family and the life he had built for more than five decades and move to New Zealand or Canada, or find a solution. An MIT and Sloan School of Management graduate, Kamal was on the Board of Governors of India's preeminent technology institute – IIT New Delhi – and now it was their turn to lend a hand. Where were the solutions? Who had been thinking about and researching air purity, he asked. Together, Kamal and a team from IIT began the search for solutions. “One source we discovered was NASA,” he says. In its research for off-planet colonies, NASA had been experimenting on using plants to ‘grow’ fresh air, but its research was classified. Creating fresh air classified? So it seems, but Kamal recalls, “We knew that we had found an idea worth exploring. The thought of using plants to grow fresh air was beautiful and elegant solution – something that should have been so obvious and intuitive.” They were on to something, and it fascinated Kamal.

“What we eventually found through our research at Paharpur Business Center (PBC),” Kamal says, “was three common and easily grown house plants that can produce all the fresh air needed indoors.” Namely:
· “The Living Room Plant” Areca Palm (Chrysalidocarpis lutescens) which converts CO2 to oxygen during the day.
· “The Bedroom Plant” Mother-in-law’s Tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata) which does the same at night.
· “The Specialist Plant” the Money Plant (Epipremnum aureum) that absorbs formaldehydes and volatile chemicals from the air.

He cites figures from past studies in PBC, the office that he manages in the heart of New Delhi, “when compared to other buildings, these plants lower eye irritation by 52%, respiratory symptoms by 34%, headaches by 12%, lung impairment by 24% and asthma by 9%. There is also a 42% probability of increasing blood oxygen by 1%. All this has led to 20% higher productivity.” The improved air quality is immediately noticeable; the moment you enter the building, you feel as if you have just landed in a rain forest.

Their research soon began to attract the interest of others, and hearing of him, Chris Anderson at TED invited Kamal to address the TED Conference to share his ideas with the world.

Kamal is a big thinker. He is not intimidated by the challenges that face him; rather, he seems to draw inspiration from them. In spite of the recent controversy over the IPCC report, Kamal has no doubt that climate change is real. He quotes and lives the motto of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

The Earth's climate is complex and the details will always be debated, but the trend is real, observable, and quickly moving towards critical tipping points. Perhaps the most important and critical of these are the melting of the polar ice cap, thawing of the permafrost in northern Canada and Russia which holds an estimated 500 gigatonnes of carbon that is being released into the atmosphere as methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2 and the oceans that currently absorb over 40 % of the CO2 emitted by human activity. As the planet warms so do the oceans, losing their ability to absorb CO2. Once they become saturate and no longer absorb CO2, our planet will warm even more quickly.

Kamal says, “I knew that we had only a few short decades to find solutions to these problems, and I began looking for ways to help. Inspired by what I had discovered in growing fresh air with plants, I had begun retrofitting PBC with green, healthy, energy efficient technologies. PBC is targeting LEED EB O&M Platinum Certification by the middle of this year. "

Buildings account for 50% of all Green House Gas emissions, and the building sector makes up roughly 40% of global energy use.

Kamal comments, “This presented a real opportunity to make a difference. I decided that if we could build the world’s greenest, most energy efficient building, and showcase the technologies used, it would serve as a model for all future buildings.” And so the concept for GreenSpaces began to take shape. “I again called on friends and colleagues from around the world to help,” says Kamal, and before long he had attracted the attention of international organizations, businesses and government laboratories ready to partner with him in his project. These included: the OECD; the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (APP) an international non-treaty agreement that includes Australia, Canada, India, Japan, the China, South Korea, and the US; as well as a number of US government energy research laboratories, IBM, GE and others.

He remarks, “It is no exaggeration to say that this will be the world’s greenest and most energy efficient commercial office building over a million square feet. When built, GreenSpaces will showcase the world’s best and most energy efficient technologies and demonstrate that the energy footprint of buildings can be economically reduced from 40% to 10%, with today’s proven technologies.” And, this will not be achieved at a cost to quality of life. Rather, using new innovative technologies and plants he has discovered that GreenSpaces will be a class by itself. Not only will it be one of the healthiest buildings in the world, but will be at least 15% more energy efficient than the new Bank of America tower, currently under construction in New York, projected to be the greenest building in America on completion.

Kamal says, “One of our main goals in GreenSpaces has been to prove that this can be done in a way that is financially practical. It is all but meaningless to build this building if costs are not controlled.” So, even though the price tag for GreenSpaces, at US $263,000,000 will be 58% more than a standard “A” class building, the energy efficiencies achieved will mean that additional costs will be paid back in six years. “Still,” Kamal says, “Even though we have chosen the best we can find, there are certain technologies which we haven’t discovered, that could improve efficiencies and or reduce costs.” But what are those technologies? How would you find them? These questions seemed unanswerable, until a small Canadian internet startup called Blue-Green Spaces which had been studying collaborative networks for the environmental community approached him. Kamal recognized this opportunity to uncover those new and better technologies.

Initially inspired by the collaborative spirit that had made Wikipedia a reality, Blue-Green Spaces was at the leading edge of what was being made possible by the Web 2.0 internet. Wikipedia, owes its existence to its founder, Jimmy Wales, in creating a loyal, dedicated online core community of around 16,000 core users.

The question they had asked themselves at Blue-Green Spaces was this: why is it, if people are this dedicated to an encyclopedia, why hasn't this happened in the environmental community? The answer to this problem was at the core of what Blue-Green Spaces had been studying.

Kamal’s entrepreneurial spirit saw an opportunity, and together they launched the GreenSpaces Challenge. The idea was to invite people from across the Globe to contribute innovative, energy efficient and cost effective ideas, products and services. Using the crowd-sourcing powers of the Internet to find latent talent pools around the world, they aim to tap a huge community, with many diverse actors but one common wish – to play a part in a way that is meaningful. Their goal is to reach out to this community, and ask them to join in and help their search for better solutions. One more time, Kamal would call on friends, colleagues, partners, and his network of contacts to spread this message. Here was a real opportunity sent out to everyone to join Kamal and also live the Mahatma’s motto: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

di S. C.