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Buildings Can Now Eat Pollution

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With an innovative use of titanium dioxide pigment in its facade, a new hospital in Mexico City is able to convert nitrogen oxide in the air into harmless chemicals.

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In 2011, Alcoa (NYSE:AA) officially unveiled a building panel that could "eat" pollution out of the air. Not only that, but the panel, using the chemical reaction of titanium dioxide and sunlight, could also clean itself. The original panels were unremarkable, modest looking pieces of aluminum, but the use of silver titanium dioxide pigment they were painted with triggered a burst of innovation. Now, less than two years since Alcoa introduced the technology, the science of buildings that literally digest pollution is on the verge of entering mainstream architecture.

Buildings around the world have begun implementing the technology, with Mexico City's Torre de Especialidades (pictured below) being the most recent -- and most striking. The building, a hospital, utilizes a new titanium dioxide tile called proSolve37e, developed by the German company Elegant Embellishments. Its mesh-like façade looks like a white, futuristic honeycomb and improves upon Alcoa's original design by greatly increasing the surface area of the titanium dioxide, allowing a higher amount of the pollutant nitrogen oxide to be broken down.

Explaining how the technology works, Tom Woody, the environment editor at Forbes, wrote, "Electrons in the titanium dioxide become supercharged and interact with water molecules in the air…[releasing] free radicals that break down organic material on the building panel and pollutants such as nitrogen oxide in the surrounding atmosphere." Thus, the pigment and sunlight react to clean the air and the building itself. The façade of the Torre de Especialidades heightens the effectiveness of the technology by enlarging the surface area and scattering more UV light. Moreover, the odd shape of the façade slows wind speed and creates turbulence, allowing for a more efficient distribution of air pollution across the façade's surface.

Every day, Mexico City's new smog-eating hospital cleans the equivalent of emissions from 8,750 cars. If every new building in Mexico City employed this technology, the air would certainly be cleaner, at least when it comes to nitrogen oxide.

As is true with any technology in its early days, the new smog-eating material is not cheap. That being said, the self-cleaning aspect of titanium dioxide paneling could save a lot of money in maintenance. In an article for Vice, Adam Clark Estes writes that this self-cleaning property could cut cleaning costs by up to two-thirds. Plus, paneling from Alcoa, like its Reynobon with EcoClean product, only adds a 4 to 5% premium to the cost of construction, according to the company. Alcoa believes that its customers will be willing to pay the premium for the technology because of the long-term return on investment it offers, as well as the publicity it attracts (case in point, the Torre de Especialidades' recent attention from the media, not to mention at least one A-list celebrity on Twitter).

To investigate the cost effectiveness of this new technology, and its ability to break into mainstream architecture, I spoke with Edgar Arevalo, an engineer at Associated Renewable, an end-to-end energy consulting and carbon management company with headquarters in New York City, London, and New Dehli.

Arevalo and Associated Renewable believe that titanium dioxide will prove highly cost effective and will catch up with other main stream green-centric fields like alternative energies and hybrid/electric cars. Attesting to the versatility of the pigment, Arevalo described how titanium dioxide can power both pollution-eating facades and solar panels. He said:

Since solar cell technology is a growing business, and also becoming more affordable, solar cells laced with titanium dioxide can definitely provide a more financially efficient solution when applied correctly for power generation while the titanium dioxide covering the exterior façade can help preserve the cleanliness of the outside walls and eliminate airborne pollutants at the same time.

I asked him whether we should be focused more on reducing emissions or cleaning those emissions out of the air. Arguing for cost effectiveness, he said we should be doing both. "Investing in energy-efficient measures to help reduce carbon emissions and greenhouse gases will pay off in time with savings on a building's electrical and heating costs."

And though he noted that "consuming and breaking down air pollutants as a stand-alone solution may not be feasible," he invoked the self-cleaning property of the technology as cost-efficient, claiming that the savings on a building's cleaning cost with also pay off with time.

John Renowden, the Vice President of Technology at Irvine, CA-based Boral Roofing, tells Minyanville that the new smog-eating façades will also help reduce health care costs. The World Health Organization estimates that every year, 2.4 million people die of causes attributable to air pollution. If titanium dioxide technology catches on, cleaning emissions out of the air could have a major impact on that figure as well.

Alcoa, Elegant Embellishments, and Boral Roofing are on the vanguard of the pollution-eating technology, but others are following suit. One company, Essroc Italcementi Group, has developed a cement augmented with titanium dioxide called TX Active that is also an effective agent for de-polluting and self-cleaning.

With cost effective pollution reduction, this technology will benefit building owners, residents, the environment at large, and, let us not forget, suppliers and producers of titanium dioxide: a big boom in the proliferation of pollution-eating paneling could be excellent news for companies like Kronos Worldwide (NYSE:KRO), Tronox (NYSE:TROX), NL Industries (NYSE:NL), Valhi (NYSE:VHI), and Rockwood Holdings (NYSE:ROC)/

Follow me on Twitter: @JoshWolonick and @Minyanville

Editor's Note: This story was ammended to say Boral Roofing is based in Irvine, CA. It originally said Sydney, Australia, where Boral Roofing's parent company is based.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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