How a Dutch Artist Will Suck the Smog Out of Beijing’s Polluted Air

China's capital is perpetually wreathed in polluted air. Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde has a solution: get out the vacuum cleaner

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Daan Roosegaarde

Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde has no qualms about dreaming big. Projects from his studio include rechargeable, glow-in-the-dark road markings, a dance floor that generates electricity from the action of dancing and a living dome constructed of hundreds of smart flowers. His latest idea is no less magical: buried copper wires that will create an electrostatic field to attract smog particles — a vacuum cleaner for the skies, if you will.

The idea has so enthused the mayor of Beijing that Roosegaarde’s been signed up to create a public park to showcase the design in action next year.

(MORE: Satellite Photos Show the Appalling Extent of China’s Air Pollution)

Titled Smog, the technology builds on existing designs to purify air, Roosegaarde tells TIME. The design harnesses basic principles of physics: buried coils of copper wire, charged with a relatively low voltage (safe enough not to impact the pacemakers of anyone who might walk by), will magnetize and attract smog particles so that they drop down from the sky. He says it will only have to be switched on for an hour or two at night. Roosegaarde has already tested out the design in a small scale, describing the meter-long pillar of air purified by it as “clean, clean.”

He plans to use the smog particulates he cleans from the air in Beijing to make pieces of jewelry. The smog from a cubic kilometer of air could be turned into a ring, an idea Roosegaarde says he got from how Beijing locals were customizing their face masks as a fashion statement. To Roosegaarde this is all part of how art can contribute to environmentalism, and how design is not just about making chairs or tables, but about “improving life and science.”

Roosegaarde is especially excited to see the design applied in Beijing, where he conceived the idea as he watched the CCTV building disappear and reappear through the city’s ever present smog. “It’s interesting that on the one hand, we’ve built machines to enable progress,” says Roosegaarde, “but on the other hand, these machines have a mind of their own. They are hitting us back.” He sees China as the symbol of this incongruity: “The desire for progress is so enormous, but they wake up one day and are in a situation where the city is suffocating.”

(MORE: WHO Agency: Air Pollution Causes Cancer)

Pollution levels have indeed been dangerous not just for health, but also for the ability of Beijing locals to go about their lives. When the smog gets out of hand, the city often announces factory or school closures. The authorities recently announced a 1 trillion yuan ($163.4 billion) fund that will tackle air pollution in the city as part of the central government’s five-year plan. This includes pollution-reduction projects and a call to cut coal consumption by 13 million tons. However, the coal will be replaced by synthetic natural gas, which creates further problems of toxic fumes and needs vast amounts of water to produce, suggests Quartz.

Roosegaarde is critical of these approaches: “So far the regulations have been about doing less — less cars, less industry. But China wants to do the opposite. It wants to do more, it wants to grow.”

He sees his design as an opportunity to show it how it can grow and be clean at the same time. But that’s not because he believes the project in itself will be a solution to sucking away the smog that blankets parts of the country’s northeast. It is, instead, a sophisticated show-and-tell device. Whereas science, fact sheets and newspapers have failed to convince us the problem is really bad, says Roosegaarde, his project will be a visual statement that will show it really is possible to “bring nature back to the city.” And art will lead the way.

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