The poem ‘In Praise of Air’, which is on a billboard at the University of Sheffield (UK), is quite literally catalytic. From a May 15, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,
Simon [Armitage], Professor of Poetry at the University, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Science Professor Tony Ryan, have collaborated to create a catalytic poem called In Praise of Air – printed on material containing a formula invented at the University which is capable of purifying its surroundings.
Here’s what the billboard looks like,
A May 14, 2014 University of Sheffield news release, which originated the news item, has more details about the project from the scientist’s perspective,
This cheap technology could also be applied to billboards and advertisements alongside congested roads to cut pollution.
Professor Ryan, who came up with the idea of using treated materials to cleanse the air, said: “This is a fun collaboration between science and the arts to highlight a 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.
“This poem alone will eradicate the nitrogen oxide pollution created by about 20 cars every day.”
He added: “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.”
The 10m x 20m piece of material which the poem is printed on is coated with microscopic pollution-eating particles of titanium dioxide which use sunlight and oxygen to react with nitrogen oxide pollutants and purify the air.
Professor Ryan has been campaigning for some time to have his ingredient added to washing detergent in the UK as part of his Catalytic Clothing project. If manufacturers added it, the UK would meet one of its air quality targets in one step.
The news release also describes the arts component and poet’s perspective on this project,
The poem will be on display on the side of the University’s Alfred Denny Building, Western Bank, for one year and its unveiling also marks the launch of this year’s Sheffield Lyric Festival which takes place between 14-17 May 2014 at the University’s Firth Hall.
At a special celebratory event on Thursday (May 15 2014), Simon will read In Praise of Air for the first time in public and Professor Ryan will explain the technology behind the catalytic poem. Volunteers will be wearing catalytic T-shirts.
Dr Joanna Gavins, from the University’s School of English, project manager for the catalytic poem collaboration, who also leads the Lyric Festival, said: “This highlights the innovation and creativity at the heart of the University and its research excellence.
“We are delighted that such a significant event will help launch this year’s Lyric Festival which also features poetry readings by students of the MA in Creative Writing, alongside internationally renowned writers such as Sinead Morrissey and Benjamin Zephaniah, and music from celebrated Sheffield songwriter, Nat Johnson.”
Simon added: “There’s a legacy of poems in public places in Sheffield and, on behalf of the University, I wanted to be part of that dialogue to show what we could do.
“I wanted to write a poem that was approachable, that might catch the attention of the passer-by and the wandering mind, and one that had some local relevance too. But I also hope it’s robust and intricate enough to sustain deeper enquiries – the School of English looks towards it for one thing, and I’d like to think it’s capable of getting the thumbs up or at least a nod from their direction, and from the big-brained students walking up and down Western Bank, and from discerning residents in the neighbourhood.”
He added: “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.
“Poetry often comes out with the intimate and the personal, so it’s strange to think of a piece in such an exposed place, written so large and so bold. I hope the spelling is right!
For the curious, here’s a link to the In Praise of Air project website where you’ll find the poem and much more,
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.
I like this poem a lot and find it quite inspirational for one of my own projects.
Getting back to Tony Ryan, he and his Catalytic Clothing project have been mentioned here in a Feb. 24, 2012 posting (Catalytic Clothing debuts its kilts at Edinburgh International Science Festival) and in a July 8, 2011 posting featuring a collaboration between Ryan and Professor Helen Storey at the London College of Fashion (Nanotechnology-enabled Catalytic Clothes look good and clean the air). The 2012 posting has an image of two kilted gentlemen and the 2011 posting has a video highlighting one of the dresses, some music from Radiohead, and the ideas behind the project.
You can find out more about Catalytic Clothing and the Lyric Festival (from the news release),
To find out more about the catalytic clothing project visit http://www.catalytic-clothing.org
The Lyric Festival is the [University of Sheffield] Faculty of Arts and Humanities’ annual celebration of the written and spoken word. Each May the festival brings some of the UK’s most renowned and respected writers, broadcasters, academics, and performers to the University, as well as showcasing the talent of Faculty students and staff. For more information visit http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/lyric
One last note about the University of Sheffield, it’s the academic home for Professor Richard Jones who wrote one of my favourite books about nanotechnology, Soft Machines (featured in my earliest pieces here, a May 6, 2008 posting). He is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor – Research & Innovation at the university and a blogger on his Soft Machines blog where he writes about innovation and research in the UK and where you’ll also find a link to purchase his book.
ETA May 20, 2014: A May 19, 2014 article by JW Dowey for Earth Times offers more details about the technology,
Titanium dioxide coating on cars and aircraft have revolutionised protective nanotechnology. The University of Sheffield has set the target as absorbing the poisonous compounds from vehicle exhausts. Tony Ryan is the professor of physical chemistry in charge of adapting self-cleaning window technology to pollution solutions. The 10m x20m poster they now use on the Alfred Denny university building demonstrates how nitrogen oxides from 20 cars per day could be absorbed efficiently by roadside absorption.
There are more tidbits to be had in the article including the extra cost (£100) of adding the protective coating to the ‘poetic’ billboard (or hoarding as they say in the UK).