China Could Wash Away Smog With Artificial Rain Storms From Skyscrapers

Airborne pollution is a major issue in China, with local hospitals opening up "smog clinics" and waves of city-dwellers migrating to more rural areas to escape. While Chinese officials are pursuing "cloud seeding" as a way to control pollution, a Zhejiang University professor thinks he has a better idea: Sprinklers. Big ones.

Yu Shaocai is a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee and an expert on "wet deposition," a process by which falling raindrops or snowflakes "scavenge" aerosol particles from the air. In other words, they collect and deposit the polluted particles on the ground. This why the air is usually clearer after a rainy day.

In an article published in the January issue of Environmental Chemistry Letters, Shaocai proposes a novel way to kickstart wet deposition in polluted cities: By faking it with geoengineered urban infrastructure. In simpler terms, Shaocai's plan involves attaching giant sprinklers, like showerheads, to the exterior of skyscrapers, and spraying water into the atmosphere above heavily-polluted cities to clear out toxins and gases.

China Could Wash Away Smog With Artificial Rain Storms From SkyscrapersS

Beijing on January 16. Image: ChinaFotoPress.

As you might expect, Shaocai has his detractors. Speaking to The South China Morning Post, one scientist questions where the water would come from and how it would be recycled, but then grudgingly admits that "assuming his team can find a system that works, and they've done enough economic analysis and considered the handling of water resources, this could be a viable option."

China Could Wash Away Smog With Artificial Rain Storms From SkyscrapersS

Shaocai imagines attaching sprinklers to the CCTV building in Beijing. Image: Lintao Zhang/Getty.

Then, of course, there's the cost of retrofitting skyscrapers with watering devices, not to mention designing a system that's safe during storms and high winds. Or engineering a system smart enough to not overwater, or freeze up on cold days.

In short, this a theoretical paper in a chemistry journal—not a workable plan. Yet.

Shaocai told the SCMP that he and his students plan to carry out tests at Zhejiang University, first, and then in Hangzhou. In his paper, he imagines the architectural implications of attaching sprinkler systems to Beijing's CCTV building or Shanghai Dongfang Tower, including some faintly absurd Photoshop composites:

China Could Wash Away Smog With Artificial Rain Storms From SkyscrapersS

Shaocai's plan sounds (and looks) like the stuff of turn-of-the-century science fiction. But it's actually fairly logical. Most urban pollution drifts below 300 feet, which means existing towers offer the perfect platform for wet deposition. And, of course, skyscrapers are usually located in parts of cities where humans spend the most time commuting—so it makes sense that man-made "rainouts" would need to mirror them on the map.

China Could Wash Away Smog With Artificial Rain Storms From SkyscrapersS

A rocket launcher used to seed clouds to induce rain is seen at a station of the Beijing Meteorological Bureau in Beijing. AP Photo/Ng Han Guan.

In December, the China Meteorological Administration announced a $277 billion plan to begin large-scale cloud seeding around Chinese cities, clearing pollution by "firing rockets carrying a payload of silver iodide particles into the clouds." But there are questions about whether cloud-seeding will actually work to spur wet deposition, since existing snow and rainfall should already be doing that job.

Whether or not Shaocai ever makes it off the drawing board, it's really cool to see how architecture—even the sort most associated with vanity and excess, the skyscraper—could serve secondary and tertiary urban functions in the near future. When humans first began building tall buildings, we imagined all kinds of future purposed for them: The Empire State Building was supposed to have its own Zeppelin tethering dock; other skyscrapers were supposed to support whole airplane runways.

None of those futures ever came to pass—but it's amazing to see other, totally unexpected ones emerge. [Environmental Chemistry Letters; South China Morning Post]

Lead image: sakhorn/Shutterstock.