Every Breath You Take: IBM Developing Project to Map and Control Beijing Air Pollution

Beijing smog
REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

China’s pollution crisis is receiving some necessary fresh air. On Monday, IBM ‘s China Research laboratory announced a partnership with the Beijing Municipal Government in a project aimed to ease the city’s toxic air pollution. The initiative will forecast and control air quality through state-of-the art computing technologies able to pinpoint the source and level of emissions released into the atmosphere.

IBM has 20 years of weather modeling experience, but Beijing’s numerous sources of pollution – the high concentration of cars, power plants and factories from surrounding areas among them – requires special supercomputer processing power that can predict pollution trends in real time. Beijing is one of China’s largest municipalities, and suffers from some of its worst air quality. The city will thus invest over $160 billion in the project and is committed to reducing harmful fine Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) particles by 25% in 2017. Xiaowei Shen, director of IBM Research in China, stated in a press release: “You not only have to build a model that can predict. You have to provide a decision system so that people can take proper action.”

The corporation is working with academics and industry gurus in addition to the city to pull data from meteorological satellites, local air quality monitoring stations to complement the corporation’s own cognitive computing and optical sensor technologies. The project will enable officials to take direct courses of action against further pollution, such as indicating where limiting traffic in the city could be most effective, or alerting residents in advance about air quality issues. Scientists will be able to construct visual maps depicting the source and strength of pollutants being poured into the atmosphere at least three days in advance, with the ability to target pollution down to the street level.

The air pollution project is part of a larger initiative entitled Green Horizon, aimed at boosting China’s sustainable growth through air quality management, energy optimization and renewable energy forecasting. IBM is developing a system intended to assist energy grids in managing alternative energy sources in addition to furthering the air pollution control project. Although the project is exclusive to Beijing thus far, the model could be utilized to improve air quality in other cities if successful.

The project appears promising although there is much legwork ahead. Dr. Lu Qiang, Professor at Tsinghua University and Fellow of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, states that the deep-rooted problem requires attacking from various angles. “The key to tackling environmental problems is not only monitoring emissions but adopting a comprehensive approach to air quality management and addressing the issues at their roots,” he says, “Initiatives like IBM’s Green Horizon can help by fostering joint innovation across the entire energy value chain.”

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