All poetry has a purpose, not least to distill and exalt the human experience, yet rarely does it have a physical role. Sometimes it is brought out into public service, popping up on transport systems or billboards, to remind the commuter there is more to life than advertisements and information. Now, for the first time, it has been brought into play as a force against climate change.
Simon Armitage, the British poet renowned for his novels, essays, and as a playwright as well as his many award-winning collections, has entered into a unique collaboration with the University of Sheffield. The result is a twenty metre high poem “In Praise of Air” that also acts as a pollutant absorber. It is positioned on the outside wall of one of the university buildings, facing a busy road.
This poem does not merely inspire the mind, it purifies the air around it, soaking up toxic emissions. It does so because it has been coated with titanium dioxide nanoparticles. This layer reacts with nitrogen dioxides and other polluting particles, bonding the gases with oxygen and transforming them into nitrates that are safe to breathe.
Although the project is in some ways fun and uses artistic license to make a point, Professor Tony Ryan, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Science and co-collaborator with Armitage, says its future implications could be impressive. If every banner and poster in the country adopted the technique of the catalytic poem, then the quality of air would radically improve. Thus, for an added cost of around £100, a billboard trying to sell cars by the roadside would be cleaning emissions as they did so. Ryan believes the environmental benefits are tremendous and could help save lives. This is not the first time Ryan has worked on catalytic surfaces, he previously developed a clothing range that performed the same job.
Armitage has spoken of the unusual creative challenges this project threw up for him. It is rare that a poem ends up as such a large physical manifestation of itself, and he wanted to respect that as well as weaving the meaning into the words. Knowing that the poem had a job to do, as a pollutant-scrubber, made the task scientific, but he did not want it to be unapproachable. He also wanted to celebrate the locality. The scale of the wall-mounted piece also reminded him he had better make sure he had got the spelling right.
The poem speaks of air being a “major god” supplier of “breast milk” always “tilted to the lips.” The last line circles back to the child in the opening verse, as it concludes “My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.” Interested readers may read the poem in its entirety in the link below.
Although the coating on the poem will only work with light and oxygen present, the light does not have to be sunlight, which is just as well, as that is not always in large supply in Sheffield. It will work by street light as well. It is expected to remove the pollution from the equivalent of twenty cars or one bus every day.
In a world first, the Sheffield catalytic poem could be the forerunner of a whole new way of addressing air pollution, and a whole new purpose for the noble art of poetry.
By Kate Henderson