Giant poem scrubs the air clean of pollutants

The collaboration between Simon Armitage and University of Sheffield uses a nano-particle coating to react with airborne pollutants

What have poems ever done for us? Apart from nourishing the soul, enriching our language, and helping to fight off the creeping ennui of daily life that is. Well, thanks to a new collaboration between Simon Armitage and the University of Sheffield, they’re also helping to clean the air.

To be clear it’s just the one poem at the moment, but it’s one poem written by Armitage and printed out on a 20-metre high billboard that actually purifies the air around it, absorbing as much pollution as emitted by twenty cars every single day.

This is because the material its been printed on is coated with a layer of titanium dioxide nanoparticles that react with pollutants (specifically nitrogen dioxides), causing the gas to bond with oxygen and disperse as human-safe nitrates.

The university’s Professor Tony Ryan said that the catalytic poem – called ‘In Praise of Air’ – was a “fun collaboration” that happened to highlight the “very serious issue of poor air quality in our towns and cities.”

“The science behind this is an additive which delivers a real environmental benefit that could actually help cut disease and save lives,” said the professor in a press release.

“If every banner, flag or advertising poster in the country did this, we’d have much better air quality. It would add less than £100 to the cost of a poster and would turn advertisements into catalysts in more ways than one. The countless thousands of poster sites that are selling us cars beside our roads could be cleaning up emissions at the same time.”

Armitage himself describes his four-verse poem as something “approachable, that might catch the attention of the passer-by and the wandering mind, and one that had some local relevance too.”

“I've enjoyed working with the scientists and the science, trying to weave the message into the words, wanting to collaborate both conceptually and with the physical manifestation of the work,” he added.

Although only those in Sheffield will be getting the pollutant-scrubbing benefit of the poem in print, the verse on its own might still help sustain you through the day. Give it a read below:

In Praise of Air

I write in praise of air.  I was six or five
when a conjurer opened my knotted fist
and I held in my palm the whole of the sky.
I’ve carried it with me ever since.

Let air be a major god, its being
and touch, its breast-milk always tilted
to the lips.  Both dragonfly and Boeing
dangle in its see-through nothingness…

Among the jumbled bric-a-brac I keep
a padlocked treasure-chest of empty space,
and on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog
or civilization crosses the street

with a white handkerchief over its mouth
and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs
I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep.
My first word, everyone’s  first word, was air.

Click here to read more about the project and catalyic materials