Fake trees by the roadside for clean air

Land alongside places such as motorways that is unsuitable for tree planting could still be used to reduce levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to latest research. A system of ‘artificial trees’ – microscopic tubes that suck in carbon dioxide from the air, as natural trees do – is being developed by leading chemists, engineers and medical researchers in the UK.

As little as a unit of one square metre containing the tiny tubes could absorb the same amount of carbon as 10 average trees. The research is being carried out at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, with funding from the Research Council UK energy programme, led by the UK Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council.

“In some ways, the unit would work like an artificial tree,” said Professor Eleanor Campbell, who is leading the project at Edinburgh University. “A key advantage of course is that the units could be used in built-up urban areas where tree planting is not possible.”

In the future, larger versions of the units could be placed near roads or on rooftops to make better use of land and spaces in reducing the carbon footprint. If the technical hurdles are successfully overcome, a patentable unit could be developed and be available for purchase within five years.

Each tube would be about one micrometre long and one nanometre in diameter. The tubes will be made of pure carbon with some additional chemical groups that will attract and trap the carbon dioxide. Once saturated with carbon, the ‘used’ tubes  will be regenerated by a rapid heat pulse generated from a renewable energy source, such as a solar cell, and the CO2 will be concentrated and stored in small canisters.

These canisters may be exchanged periodically for fresh ones as part of a regular collection round. “The tube material will be specially designed at the nano scale to be highly porous, in order to absorb as much carbon dioxide as possible,” said Professor Campbell. 

A key task is to engineer the chemistry of the tubes to make sure  they only adsorb CO2 without taking water vapour, for instance, out of the air as well. The filled CO2 canisters could be transported to a special facility where the carbon can be collected prior to secure disposal deep underground using carbon capture and storage technology.

New German centre for virtual engineering

The new Centre for Virtual Engineering (ZVE) at the headquarters in Stuttgart, southern Germany, of the Fraunhofer Institute has been awarded a Gold certification by the German Sustainable Building Council, but its main feature is the focus on communal space designed to foster a cooperative working environment.

The unusual ‘prototype building’, designed by the Dutch architectural firm UNStudio, was officially opened at the end of June.  UNStudio describes it as an “example of the role that architecture can play in the working environments of the future”.

The Centre has been designed with engineers – specifically virtual engineers – very much in mind.  

Virtual engineers are in the business of using computer modelling and simulation, and research at the ZVE will focus on rapid prototyping, creative working, and what is called “aftermath estimation” of new products. UNStudio’s design has attempted to blur the
traditional boundaries between work areas, breakout areas and circulation areas.

Laboratories have direct access to a “communication area” and share offices with one another.  

The building uses BubbleDeck rather than traditional concrete floor slabs – a technology which employs hollow plastic balls constrained within a mesh.

This results in considerable weight reductions that cut down the need for supporting columns.  The lack of ceiling lintels that would otherwise be required make for taller windows  which throw daylight deeper into the building,  which in turn allows energy savings.

The building is cooled by means of concrete core activation  Cold water is piped from the sprinkler tank on the roof through the building’s structure, drawing heat from the space.

Achal Narayanan