China's pollution a breath of fresh air for US firms

Updated: 2012-08-17 07:39

By Ariel Tung (China Daily)

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China's pollution a breath of fresh air for US firms

The air pollution problem in Beijing has created opportunities for air solution businesses. Provided to China Daily

Foreign businesses help public transport and power companies clean up their act

China's air pollution has drawn some harsh criticism, but for some it is creating big business opportunities.

AtmosAir Solution of Connecticut is one of those that aim to make profits from helping the Chinese deter air pollution and improve their health.

The company, which designs and manufactures air purification equipment for businesses, recently signed a contract with Shanghai Hangsheng Industry Co Ltd to install clean-air devices into China's transport, including buses, subways, trains and eventually private cars.

Shanghai Hangsheng officials said this will provide clean and fresh air for enclosed moving spaces, as people become increasingly concerned about the environment and their health. Shanghai Hangsheng is one of the leading automotive electronics manufacturers in China's commercial vehicle sector.

"We hope to customize AtmosAir's cutting-edge air purification technology to a more sophisticated automotive level device, to provide healthier air and benefit people who rely on mass public transport daily," says Jin Weihua, Shanghai Hansheng's chairman.

Steve Levine, AtmosAir's president and CEO, adds: "This will not solve China's massive air pollution problem, but it will bring some relief to those Chinese who use mass transit."

Using AtmosAir's bi-polar ion technology and components shipped from the United States, Shanghai Hangsheng will design air purification devices that meet local automotive standards. The devices improve enclosed air conditions by distributing bi-polar ions that resemble the fresh air in high mountains or forests.

They are due to be installed in buses at the end of the year.

"We are working with a large bus maker in China," Jin says. "The first installations will include long-distance coach buses and city buses. We hope to customize these devices for railway carriages in order to meet railway electronic standards."

The agreement, announced on July 30, marks AtmosAir's first foray into China. The initial contract is for three years, and is renewable for another seven years. AtmosAir would not disclose the amount of money it was awarded but says it aims to enter into a long-term partnership with Shanghai Hangsheng.

"We had China on our radar screen for a number of years, mainly because we are quite aware of the issues of air quality there," says Tony Abate, vice-president of operations at AtmosAir. "Due to the growing population, growing number of cars on the roads, and increase in usage of energy, the air quality in China will probably diminish rather than improve."

China's pollution a breath of fresh air for US firms

AtmosAir was introduced to Shanghai Hangsheng through another American company, Green Star International. In December, Levine and Abate travelled to China to meet Shanghai Hangsheng. On return to the US, it took five months and a few phone conversations to finalize the agreement.

Abate, who visited Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen during the trip, says he was "a little shocked" by the prevailing fog and air quality. Flying in from New York, their plane had to stop over at Narita airport in Tokyo for 24 hours due to fog in Beijing.

"When the plane departed from Narita the following day, there was still this visibility problem in Beijing. The pilots informed us that if there's no improvement, the plane would have to turn back. Fortunately we did arrive."

Research by Chinese authorities found that 60 percent of the smallest particulate matter in Beijing's air comes from coal burning, car emissions and industrial production, according to Xinhua News Agency. About 80 percent of electricity in China is generated from coal, the main source of air pollution in the country.

Vehicle exhaust, a major source of fine particulate pollution, is a growing problem in Beijing, where the number of cars has risen from 3.5 million in 2008 to 5 million in 2011.

According to the World Bank, 16 of the world's 20 cities with the worst air are in China. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center before the 2008 Olympic Games found that 74 percent of the Chinese interviewed said they were concerned about air pollution.

Experts use PM2.5 - concentration of particles in the air that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers - to measure urban air pollution. PM2.5 is believed to be hazardous to health because they can easily penetrate lungs and enter the bloodstream.

"There's an overabundance of such particles," Abate says. "They can actually become invisible and turn into a fog - something that people should be concerned about. PM2.5 particles can be breathed into your mouth and lungs. They could cause distress and respiratory problems."

Fuel Tech Inc, another American company, in Illinois, has been helping China clean up its air for about seven years. Its technology focuses on reducing the amount of nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-powered utilities.

China's nitrogen oxide emissions, the main cause of urban smog, have increased 3.8 percent a year for 25 years. At this rate, emissions are projected to double by 2020. Nitrogen oxide is released by power plants, cars and heavy industry.

Since 2005 Fuel Tech has been winning contracts from China's big five power companies - China Huaneng Group, China Guodian Corp, China Power International Development Ltd, China Huadian Corp and China Datang Corp. In 2007 Fuel Tech, which has three offices in the US and one in Italy, set up an office in Beijing.

"We see China as a very large opportunity for our technology," says Vincent Arnone, Fuel Tech's executive vice-president of worldwide operations. "We set up our office there because we believe that the Chinese market was starting to focus more on our technology." Although Fuel Tech came into existence in the 1980s, it only began to offer its current technology in the past 15 years, and has been quite successful with it.

It helps that the company went into the China market early, to establish good relationships with local companies. Today, most of Fuel Tech's foreign business comes from China. About 20 percent of its total revenue comes from its China market.

"The air pollution in Beijing is still extremely bad," Arnone says. "I have been going there once every two months for the past two years. The government wants to ensure that the air quality is being improved. But there's a very long way to go."

The future looks bright for the company because China's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) has specifically focused on reducing pollutants and emissions that include nitrogen oxide.

"What's interesting is that as we try to adapt to the Chinese market, we have been able to localize a great majority of the technology solutions that we sell to China," Arnone says.

(China Daily 08/17/2012 page16)