Every year in winter in India’s national capital, Delhi, there is an inside joke about the season for residents, with winter also being called: ‘The Great Indian Pollution Season.’ Starting right after Diwali, the numbers to calculate air quality index rises drastically, crossing ‘hazardous’ and ‘very hazardous’ levels. A large chunk of Delhi’s air pollution in the months from October to February is attributed to Diwali, which prompts the state government to ban firecrackers. Then follows stubble burning in farms from the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. While the Delhi government has set up multiple smog towers to combat the pollution of outdoor air — it may be a long time before conclusive results from them show up. The most worrying part of dirty air is the ultrafine particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) that can enter organs and cause lasting damage. And while Delhi was the most polluted capital city in the world in 2020 for the third consecutive year, the problem is not limited to just Delhi – other Indian cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and more also witness a dip in air quality every year. The problem itself isn’t one single source or one factor that contributes to the deterioration of air quality, and hence perhaps finding a single solution to the problem of air pollution pan-India may be difficult. A 23-year-old inventor and social entrepreneur from Mumbai, however, maybe on the right track to solving it.
For Angad Daryani, the problem has always been personal. “Growing up, I had asthma. During Diwali, my parents would make us leave Mumbai ahead of the pollution surge,” he tells News18. “I was active in sports, but I would wake up feeling tired, and would have breathing problems often.” Angad wasn’t alone in this aspect – dirty air does directly affect health. A report in July this year called ‘India’s Non-Communicable Disease Burden’ by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, found that air pollution is the most prevalent risk factor among the surveyed population.
While Angad was in the US studying in Georgia Institute of Technology, he realized the solution to solving the problem of dirty air wasn’t as simple as migrating to a country with cleaner air. The solution would condemn everyone else living in the country to a quicker death, accelerated by diseases caused by air pollution. From there, Angad’s idea of ‘Praan’ (‘life’ in Hindi), was born.
Speaking to News18, Angad explains that the solution to India’s air problem would have to be one that could easily be replicated and was low-cost. For this, the tech had to be filterless. “Using and replacing a HEPA filter over and over has a recurring cost. Along with the monetary cost, there is also another environmental cost – disposing of the HEPA filters which contain pollutants from the atmosphere since they cannot be recycled.” There is another environmental cost, the energy offset of running the purifiers, which usually run on electricity, generated from coal, another source of pollution. For Praan, Angad tells News18, the energy offset is a net 54.44%, even if it is run on coal power.
With the help of passionate engineers who work in various tech companies in the Silicon Valley, and of other inventors from 70 cities in the world, Praan came up with its flagship product, called Mach One or MK 1. The product is designed to address the problem of air pollution at the base level: the level where it really affects Indians — the outdoors, up to a breathing and walking level.
“There are fundamentally infinite sources of air pollution. There’s smog, dust particles, paint degrading from buildings, construction in cities, vehicles, industry, diesel generators, naturally-occurring particulates – it’s a long list. To try and find a solution to the source of all these problems seems implausible at the present time. What we aimed for was to solve it at the level it affected Indians,” explains Angad. With MK 1, Praan aims to create hyper-local zones in places like schools, public gardens, hotels, shopping malls and more. Angad also explains that one purifier would not do the job. “The aim was to purify a certain zone or an area, where the tech would actually work, instead of trying to fix an entire city at one go,” he explains. Citing the example of Cyberhub in Gurgaon, he says the open-air space between restaurants on either side and the stretch where people walk could be purified, up to a height of 10 feet. A cluster of MK 1’s there would be making the air outdoor cleaner.
For this, Angad stresses on the fact that the tech focuses on having an instantaneous impact, capturing all kinds of particulates from the atmosphere, and being filterless.
The researcher explains how the device filters different kinds of particulates, irrespective of location or size . “Think of air particulates as having different sizes, like a marble, a crazy ball, a cricket ball, a football. All of these are tossed onto a net, which manages to capture them, because irrespective of the size, the net’s capturing capacity remains the same. That’s essentially what a filter does.”
But where do the particulates go if they’re not caught by a filter? There’s another greener solution for the answer. The MK 1 machines have a collection chamber that stores the particulates, which can be emptied every two to six months, by opening and taking out the collection barrel, which is a 30-second process. The collection is then sent to another India-based company, Carbon Craft Design, an architecture firm that then turns the carbon particles into floor tiles. Carbon Craft Tiles on its website explains that 1 Carbon Tile is equivalent to preventing 5 kg CO2e in the atmosphere.
Most of MK 1’s parts are also made in India, with 95% of the materials for it and the manufacturing done between Maharashtra and Gujarat, and also comes at 1/1400th the cost of the Delhi Smog Tower, with two MK 1 systems coming at the cost of an iPhone 13.
For Praan, while the machine works, tests are also underway to determine what the impact numbers look like for larger spaces and if the complex computer simulations translate to real-life for every situation possible. “The aim is to capture pollutants at a faster rate than they are introduced in the environment,” explains Angad. Praan has just raised a $1.5M (INR 11 Crores) funding round led by US-based Social Impact Capital with key angel investors between the US and India.
Air pollution has a high cost in India. Air pollution costs Indian businesses $95 billion every year, or 3% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, and cuts annual consumer spending by $22 billion, found a new study in April this year. Every year, higher pollution levels shave off $1.3 billion from India’s IT sector in lost productivity, said the study by industry group CII; Clean Air Fund, a charity; and consulting firm Dalberg. If New Delhi fails to clean its toxic air, the booming IT sector could lose more than $2.5 every year, the study warned.