Just breathe: How 5G and smart tech can mean cleaner air

Taking shelter: Hangzhou – a focus of 2019’s World Environment Day – is struggling to fight air pollution. Picture credit: Joey Huang on Unsplash

Hangzhou’s air is always dirty,” says Joey Chen, a student at the city’s Zhejiang University.

“Everyday you get up and watch out of window, [and] the only thing you can see is white: dirty air,” he says.  

“This is the only reason I dislike Hangzhou.”

Bustling Hangzhou in the east of China is home to nearly 10 million people. It’s world famous as a home to the tech industry, including the world’s largest retail and e-commerce company, Alibaba.

Marco Polo in his late thirteenth-century travels called it “the finest and most splendid city in the world.”

It also, like many cities in China and around Asia, struggles with air pollution.

The air that keeps us alive can also be an invisible killer.

Hazy shade: View on Hangzhou Lake with the haze visible over the water. Picture credit: Jan Gottweiss on Unsplash

Over 90% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds safe limits, says the World Health Organisation (WHO) – and over four million people die each year as a result.

Many live in the Asia Pacific region.

Hangzhou is the hub for 2019’s World Environment Day. It’s a holiday the United Nations first celebrated in 1974, and is hosted by a different nation each year.  

And this time round, the focus is on what’s filling our lungs.

Breathless in Hangzhou

Hangzhou has the most cars per person in China, says Noah Willingham, who lives in the city as a Princeton in Asia teaching fellow at Zhejiang University of Technology.  

Cars are the chief source of particulate matter in the air – sometimes called PM 2.5, measuring particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres.

The largest of these particles are 30 times smaller than the diameter of human hair. They are small enough to lodge deep in the lungs, and even get into your blood.

As the levels of PM 2.5 in the air increase, the sky appears hazy and visibility shrinks.

In the two days before World Environment Day, the PM 2.5 index in Hongzhou climbed to 169 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre).

By comparison, in Berlin it got no higher than 56. Helsinki got as high as 60. London was 78.

Alibaba’s Ant Forest app, which plants trees when you’ve earnt enough green points

China is taking tough measures against air pollution, promoting cycling and introducing controls on when residents can drive.

This includes tech.

Alibaba introduced an app for Hangzhou residents called “Ant Forest.”

When users perform activities that improve the environment, like cycling to work, they are rewarded with “green energy” points.

If you accumulate enough of these, Ant Forest will plant a tree.

The scheme has planted over a million saplings.

Ant Forest has planted over 100 million trees covering 933km2 – or130,000 soccer fields. Picture credit: Photo by zhang kaiyv on Unsplash

We can build it

Beating air pollution will take every bit of ingenuity and technology we have – and full use of the power of 5G and the internet of things (IoT).

The University of Helsinki has been working with Shanghai to create a massive, dense network of air quality sensors to detect air polluters.

The MegaSense project will use 5G networks to connect the sensors to the cloud, giving policymakers and residents real-time snapshots of air quality across the city.

Putting IoT technology into taxis means minicab companies can do “a whole variety of things” to make journeys greener, says Ian Cohen, Addison and Lee’s chief information officer.

This includes making predictive choices about when to service cars, to keep them running more efficiently.

“And making sure its emissions and everything around our sustainability objectives are measured and monitored,” he says.

Paint your data centre green

Viral cat videos could be warming the planet.

As we produce more data – we need to think hard about how to store it all in a more green way.

The rate at which electronic data is generated around the world doubles about every 18 months.

That’s a total of 33 zettabytes. By 2025, this will grow to around 175 zettabytes, say both Cisco and the International Data Corporation (IDC).

A zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes.

It would take 12.5 billion of today’s largest hard drive to store all that data.

Or placed on Blue Ray discs, says IDC senior vice president David Reinsel, the stack would reach to the moon and back 23 times.

And this data – from your cat pictures to your car’s latest position – has to live somewhere.  Somewhere like Prinveville, Oregon, a small city of 9,000 where Facebook has built three giant data centres and is planning two more.

Swimming pool near Zurich heated by excess heat from a nearby server farm

Data centres today have the same carbon footprint as the airline industry’s emissions from fuel, and they consume more electricity, 416.2 terawatt hours, than the entire UK.

They also run hot, says Khaled Sedrak, founder of NxtVn, a Dutch-based company which builds data centre parks.

So start-ups, and even larger companies, are looking into ways to recover and reuse the waste energy in that heat, says Mr Sedrak.

IBM built a data centre in Uitikon, near Zurich, which pumps its excess heat next door to warm the town swimming pool.

In Paris, Telecity’s Condorcet data centre sends its waste energy to heat a Climate Change Arboretum, which investigates the effects on vegetation of the temperature conditions expected to prevail in France in 2050.

Beware of the moose

Meanwhile, Facebook plans to double the size of its data centre in Luleå, on the coast of northern Sweden, 70 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

It is surrounded by a fence to keep moose out.

The city of 75,000, which has an average temperature of three degrees celsius (37.3 F), has a large proportion of hydro-electric renewables from nearby rivers in its energy supply.

Facebook’s Luleå data centre

And the natural effect of cooling makes the subarctic city a hot spot for servers.

Pumping in cold air from outside with large fans lets the servers consume 40% less power than traditional data centres, says Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerber.

Interestingly, scale effects do make it easier for large data centres to adopt renewable energy, says Mr Sedrak.

Greenpeace’s Click Clean report praised Google and Facebook for using 56% and 67% clean energy, respectively, to power their servers.

Meanwhile, in Hangzhou, the city’s skyscrapers lit up overnight with the message “Beat Air Pollution.”

Doing this will take many more projects like Ant Forest and Mega Sense, 5G and IoT, and all the power of tech at our disposal.

But tech firms have got the message.

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