Dutch innovations in air quality

The environmental policy debate has been taken over by climate change for years. With some backlash lately because of climate denialism. Most discussion about climate change focus on reducing the emissions of carbon dioxide into the air. In this post I will argue that it is better for both public health and fighting climate change to shift focus to non-CO2 greenhouse gases and air pollution for the short term, leaving the reduction of actual CO2 emission to the future. Do I hear some climate fighters cry wolf already? :P

Let me be very clear: I trust climate scientist when they say irreversible climate change is upon us if we don’t act now. I equally understand the peak oil statements about shrinking oil and gas reserves and rising fossil energy prices. I also know a large part of The Netherlands is within European air quality standards. And still I argue the focus to combat climate change should be on air quality, especially if The Netherlands want to give their entrepreneurs a head start. As a researcher once provocatively said to me: the carbon price will be zero if Europe reaches the CAFE air quality standards timely…

The problem
A few years ago I attended a workshop about the interconnection between transboundery air pollution and climate change. The research presented showed it might be more effective to combat climate change by combatting soot and air pollution (like nitrogen oxides and methane).

Carbon black, as soot was called by the researchers, is formed mainly through incomplete combustion of both fossil and biofuels. The researchers told that part of the carbon black rains down in snowy areas, where it turns the snow darker. Thereby increasing the amount of solar radiation absorbed, thus raising the temperature of the snow which makes it melt… That’s one good reason to focus on reducing air pollution by carbon black for The Netherlands.

A second good reason to focus on carbon black has to do with human health. Carbon black is associated with a lot of human health problems ranging from asthma to heart diseases. Human health can be an important driver for environmental policy and a researcher from the Dutch Environmental Agency (PBL) recently wrote an article suggesting reducing soot can be very effective to improve impact from air pollution on human health.

I know The Netherlands manage to comply to current European air quality standards. But still our air quality is a far cry from the long term CAFE objective:

to achieve levels of air quality that do not result in unacceptable impacts on, and risks to, human health and the environment.

Especially because the scientific evidence that smaller carbon black particles have more adverse health effects. Those small particles are not yet regulated, but local politicians know that their citizens are worried and either use it in their campaign or reject to build schools and houses next to highways.

Carbon black isn´t the only air pollution problem. Ozone is another one. Although the ozone layer on high altitudes is necessary to prevent skin cancer, ground level ozone forms a threat to human health. Recent research by Plant Research International (Dutch pdf) based upon data supplied by Crops Advance shows that exposure to ozone also significantly decreases the ability of plants and trees to absorb carbon dioxide. This effect can be significantly and can reduce the Carbon Use Efficiency of commercial crops up to 46%. If plants are exposed to ozone as seedlings the effect remains even after the ozone level decreases. Perhaps it’s more logical to increase the carbon use efficiency of commercial crops by reducing air quality before spending our money on putting carbondioxide undergroud…

The carbon use efficiency can be increased by reducing ozone concentrations at ground level. Ozone is formed as a result of other air polluting emissions, mainly volatile organic compounds (VOC’s, such as methane) and nitrogen oxides. Both are emitted by burning fossil and biofuels. But VOC’s are also released during transport and storage of fossil fuels, and some of them, like methane, are very potent greenhouse gasses. So considering the fact that non-CO2 greenhouse gases (like methane) are responsible for over 50% of the greenhouse effect focussing on air quality to combat climate change is less strange then it looks on the outset.

The solution
The solution to the above problem for the long term is to decrease the amount of combustion fuel needed by increasing the production of sustainable energy that don’t need combustion and electrification, like electric cars. The short term solution is to use innovations at hand to reduce the emissions of air polluting substances like VOC’s, carbon black and nitrogen dioxide. Several Dutch companies can provide such solutions and research shows that providing them a home market is very favorable to gain traction on the world market.

So let’s show some examples of Dutch companies that can provide world class solutions to combat air pollution.

Teigro: VentClean-system
The VentoClean-System is a special explosion proof machine for the degassing and recovering of hydrocarbons out of tanks and hoses in the shipping industry and bulk storage. It has been developed to clean tanks and hoses from gases and residues quickly after the tanks have been emptied. Through a condensation process gases and residues are brought back to the original product in liquid form very quickly. The high speed together with the high ventilation capacity of the system are also caused by bringing back a higher optimum temperature in the tanks and hoses, this temperature is re-used from the condensation process.

The VentoClean-Systems had advantages for both people, planet and profit. To start with the profit part: In short the VentoClean-System saves costs and increases turnover. By using the VentoClean-System the tanks are immediately employable, washing is not necessary and there is hardly any waste or slobs.

As the system can be used independent from location and time, ships that have been equipped with the VentoClean-System become more flexible and are employable more rapidly. The extra shipping hours caused by ventilation can be brought back, port and lock costs can be reduced and a backload can be loaded more often.

The gains for the planet consist of less waste or slobs, less washing of tanks and reducing the need for ventilation in open air decreases air polluting emissions. Less air polluting emissions is also good for people, as the system can also be used to clean tanks containing carcinogenic substances like benzene.

Accede: Cairbags
Accede has developed a concept they call Cairbags for use in tanks. This short movie explains how Cairbags work.

A Cairbag is an aircushion that is installed and inflated in the container of the trailer or truck, especially if the container is only partially filled with a liquid load. The Cairbag fills at all times that space that is not filled by the liquid, preventing the presence of free air. The effect of the Cairbag is that it decreases the emission and evaporation of liquids in a partially or fully filled tank. Therefore the Cairbag contributes to better air quality along shipping routes, both coastal and inland. A Cairbag also increases the fuel efficiency for trucks that use them.

Cairbags can also be used in tank terminals to reduce emissions to air. When they are combined with a Linerbag emissions to both air and groundwater can be reduced to (almost) zero. Leaving a larger volume of products to sell and increasing air quality in the surrounding area.

Greentec Oils
Greentec Oils increases the fuel efficiency of existing engines and reduces the emission of both nitrogen oxides and soot. This is done by a combination of a special biobased oil, adjustments to the engine which make it run smoother and an addendum to improve fuel quality. Confidential data I’ve seen show generators use 10% less fuel and emission from soot and nitrogen oxides are reduced up to 80%.

HMVT: Corona
HMVT is developing the Corona Air Purification system together with Eindhoven University of Technology (TUe) and Oranjewoud. The name Corona refers to the phenomenon of air conducting electricity under the influence of a powerful electric field without making a full discharge circuit. The Corona Air Purifier cleanses vapours with the help of pulsed high-voltage electricity, also known as Pulsed Power. The Corona Air Purification system can remove substances like VOC’s, nitrogen oxides, particle matters and traffic emissions with rates ranging from 50% up to 99%.

Needed action by government
First and foremost the current separation between air quality and climate change policy should be reconsidered. People are much more likely to act on air quality, as air pollution has a direct effect on both human health and agricultural output and can have a profound and almost immediate effect.  Both local and national authorities can play their part by not settling for a C minus for air quality.

On the second place a home market for the above mentioned companies can be created. One of the main lessons from research to the critical success factors for clean tech done by both the European Union and World Wildlife Foundation is that a home market gives a large competitive advantage to clean tech companies. Nothing is more convincing and compelling for foreign customers than being able to show that your technology is being used in your own country. After all a sales pitch containing the phrase this technology is not yet used (or not even allowed) in my own country will not be very convincing, of even a sales pitch at all!

Creating a home market requires more than providing innovation subsidies or R&D funding. It requires an environment where government and entrepreneurs form partnerships to bring technology to the market. Also Dutch government should take an active role in setting at least European standards for clean tech, as we’ve recently done for electric cars.

If this is done wisely the above mentioned technologies have the potential improve air quality both in The Netherlands and worldwide. Improving air quality will decrease health care cost, save millions of people from air pollution related illness, increase agricultural production (one of our top sectors) and even stall climate change as a side effect…

So let’s hope some we’ll see some Dutch clean tech on the Catwalk for Innovation next month.

This post was originally witten for and published by TEDxBinnenhof. Thanks to my former collegues for pointing me to the companies and research mentioned in this post. And to Ivo Stroeken, Advisor Electric Transportation, and Max Herold, owner at Managementissues.com for critically reviewing draft versions.

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