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Surprising Science

Smog-Eating Material to Wrap Buildings

Titanium dioxide, a nearly ubiquitous but wholly unsung material, benefits the environment by eating air pollutants. It is increasingly used to build green infrastructure in cities.

What’s the Latest Development?

Researchers in Belgium are testing an old material in a new way, which may benefit the environment and make city dwellers healthier and happier by eating away at air pollutants. Titanium oxide, currently used in everything from toothpaste to sunscreen, can now be found coating the ceiling of a driving tunnel in Brussels, Belgium. Scientists there are measuring how many toxins are decomposed by the material, including so-called NOx gases (molecules composed of nitrogen and oxygen) and VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

What’s the Big Idea?

Until now, the effects of titanium oxide have been understood only in laboratory settings, but this is about to change. The aluminum company Alcoa has created a titanium dioxide coating for aluminum panels designed to cover buildings like a shell. “The firm claims that 1,000 square meters of the coated panels eat up the equivalent NOx output of four cars.” Large real-world projects that make use of the material will allow scientists to determine if it creates any harmful chemicals as a by-product of its pollution-eating ability.

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