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How the University of Chicago is helping fix Delhi air pollution

The University’s Energy Policy Institute joined hands with Indian authorities in an innovation challenge to address environmental issues
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   11-11-2016
Above: File photo of smog in Delhi by Wonker, used under CC license

The frightening smog in Delhi at the end of October made headlines around the world. The city was already well known as one of the most polluted on the planet. Almost exactly a year before the Great Diwali Smog of 2016 – on 23rd October, 2015, to be precise – the University of Chicago signed a deal with the Delhi government to improve the air and water quality in India’s national capital. The highlight was the ‘Urban Labs Innovation Challenge – Delhi’ launched on December 1 last year. Anyone, including individuals, experts, associations, and organizations, could send in ideas to improve air quality, and the best ideas would win prize money worth Rs 2 crore (US $300,000). The unique crowdsourcing competition was a project of the Tata Center for Development, which is supported by Tata Trusts.

The competition winners were announced recently. The first prize went to Chakr Innovation’s ‘Paint From Pollution’ plan, which seeks to remove particulate matter from the exhaust of internal combustion engines and convert it into black ink and paint. Particulate matter pollution can cause stroke, asthma, and cancer. Exhaust from vehicles and diesel generators accounts for up to 34% of Delhi’s particulate matter pollution. Chakr Innovation’s project will employ a device that absorbs more than 72% of the particulate matter from diesel exhaust, without hurting engine performance.

In the pilot phase, the technology will be tried out on diesel generators that serve as power backups for mobile towers in Delhi, which consume more than 50 liters of diesel daily. Most of the city’s 14,000 mobile towers have a diesel generator as the primary power source or as a backup. The project will be expanded to cover larger diesel generators used in hospitals and hotels, and then to commercial vehicles.

The second prize winner addresses one of the leading causes of Delhi’s air pollution – the burning of post-harvest stubble in rice fields in the neighboring states of Haryana and Punjab. Such burning is illegal, but cheap and therefore common. The Climate Foundation and Tide Technocrats came up with the ‘Charvester’ system, which affordably recycles rice straw into biochar with clean emissions. It enables farmers to comply with air pollution laws at minimal cost and effort, increases soil productivity, and restores depleted lands.

Many villages in Haryana support this project and have agreed to pilot Charvesting. Punjab and Haryana alone account for 48% of emissions from the burning of rice fields in India, so tackling the problem there could significantly reduce air pollution in North India.

The third winner is Mahila Housing SEWA Trust, which seeks to improve the indoor ambience in Delhi’s shanty homes. This can greatly improve the quality of life and productivity of the poor, especially women who spend a good deal of time indoors. Many shanty homes have only illegal and irregular access to electricity, and are built with heat-absorbing materials that require more energy to cool down. Poor light and ventilation force the residents to use more electric lights and fans. This project will pilot cool roofs in three slums.  It will train women entrepreneurs and design a loan product to create a sustainable business model. The project will reduce residents’ exposure to extreme heat. It will also cut household energy costs and thus free up more money for food, health, and education.

According to Unicef, 2 billion children around the world breathe toxic air. The youngest residents of New Delhi are among 220 million kids in South Asia exposed to pollution levels more than six times the standards set by the World Health Organization.

The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) focuses its research on themes such as climate, environment, grid and storage, and law. It engages with an interdisciplinary group of experts from the university and from partner organizations such as the Argonne National Lab. The University of Chicago offers several programs in energy/environment for undergraduate, graduate and PhD students.



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