Puebla’s Urban Air Pollution Solution
By DEBRA ACZEL and MIRIAM ACZEL
Puebla and The City of Ideas
This past November, we had the honor of attending the 12th edition of the Ciudad de las Ideas—“City of Ideas”—the International Festival of Brilliant Minds held each year in Puebla, Mexico. This year’s festival, organized around the theme of “Epic Ideas,” was held November 8-10. The conference seeks to highlight and share innovative ideas and global solutions with wider and more diverse audiences. The conference also includes a social entrepreneurship mechanism, Gifted Citizen, which this year highlighted several creative environmental solutions, including 16-year-old Maanasa Mendu’s “Harvest,” a nature-inspired renewable energy device.
During our time in Puebla, we became interested in the country’s air pollution issues, and solutions currently being developed by Mexican scientists in Puebla.
Air Pollution: A Global Problem
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 7 million people die each year from effects of air pollution, and 90% of the world’s population breathe air with high levels of pollution. The country’s capital, Mexico City, has a well-known problem with air pollution, leading to health risks including respiratory illnesses in children and others who are vulnerable. The problem affects other cities and locations as well. In fact, according to the Mexican National Institute for Public Health, nation-wide 14,600 deaths annually can be attributed to exposure to PM 2.5 particulate—atmospheric pollution particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers.
Local Solutions for Air Pollution
Puebla, located about 180 kilometers south-east of the capital, also grapples with severe air quality issues. Both cities and their surrounding regions faced worsening pollution due to wildfires in spring of 2019, and the air quality problem is Puebla is further exacerbated by nearby Popocatépetl (El Popo), an active volcano that often sends plumes of ash, volcanic gas, and water vapor aloft. In addition, Puebla and its surrounding areas are often choked with severe traffic congestion, adding to the pollution residents face.
However, there is some good news coming from Mexican scientists and entrepreneurs. An air purifier inspired by nature and the unique air cleansing abilities of trees has been developed by Mexican biologist Carlos Monroy Sampieri of the University of Veracruz. Monroy subsequently founded BiomiTechto develop and bring to market BioUrban, an innovative system to mitigate urban environmental pollution by using specially-developed micro-algae to cleans atmospheric contaminants.
Since its founding in 2016, BiomiTech has developed a range of solutions, depending on needs of users. For example, BioUrban 1.0, a skinny column, is designed for indoor use, while BioUrban 2.0, a 4-meter high tree-like tower, has been developed for outdoor use. The company continues to experiment with additional products and refine their existing line.
So how does the BioUrban system work?
According to Monroy, “Algae has the ability to break down compounds faster than trees.” In fact, he says that “…75 percent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the sea, precisely from these organisms.” The algae used in a BiomiTech system uses a special species of algae that can process higher quantities of pollution. The BioUrban system—so called because it is specifically designed to work in urban environments—uses only algae and sunlight to create photosynthesis, as well as a pump to force air through the device. The tower is designed to be installed in areas of high concentration of particulate matter, such as traffic intersections, train stations, bus stops, among others. According to Jaime Ferrer, co-founder of BiomiTech, “the system induces 3200 square meters per hour of polluted air, which works as food for the microalgae inside the tower” and in turn releases the same amount of clean air. The system is able to work continuously.
Expanding Installations of BioUrban ‘Trees’
BiomiTech’s first artificial BioUrban 2.0 ‘tree’ was installed in Puebla, under local government sponsorship. Installations are expanding, including versions installed in Turkey and Columbia to see if the system can work efficiently in industrial pollution “hot spots.” BiomiTech is planning an “urban forest” in London—a global metropolis with a significant air pollution problem—which will be able to measure the amount of pollution being sequestered. While BioUrban is currently still in a test phase, it shows great potential for remediating atmospheric pollution, and has received several international prizes and global recognition, including the 2018 Latam Edge in London, the 2019 Heineken Green challenge in Mexico, among others.
Monroy is clear that BioUrban is not a replacement for trees but rather a device to help clean urban air. In fact, he says that for each BioUrban device sold, BiomiTech plants 368 trees in local communities. Additionally, the residues of the algae have potential for use as a biofuel, due to the high lipid and protein content. BiomiTech is also exploring ways to recycle waste products generated by the device as compost.
For more on Manaasa Mendu’s ‘Harvest’ project, see Miriam’s previous post: La Ciudad de las Ideas (‘City of Ideas’) Champions Environmental Leaders and Solutions
Debra Aczel has over 40 years in educational program management, including as program manager at MIT’s Terrascope Program—an interdisciplinary environmental program working to solve pressing global issues. She is co-founder and current co-director of the Amir D. Aczel Foundation for Research and Education in Science and Mathematics, supporting cultural and educational projects in Cambodia.
Miriam Aczel is a President’s PhD Scholar at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, focusing on international energy and environmental science and policy. Miriam is co-founder and co-director of the Amir D. Aczel Foundation for Research and Education in Science and Mathematics, a 501(C)(3) non-profit supporting education in Cambodia.
She is Director of Communications and blog editor for Leaders in Energy.
This article was originally published by Leaders in Energy.