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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Eco Watch

Would You Believe a Smog-Free L.A.?

March 15, 1998|BETTIJANE LEVINE

Can you imagine L.A. with air so clean that people start coming here for their health?

Mel Prueitt can. He's a Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist who dreamed up an ambitious scheme by which convection towers would literally bathe the air, leaving it pristine as an Alpine aerie.

Prueitt, 65, designed circular towers that stand 60 stories high--think Hotel Bonaventure, only taller. They work like this: Polluted air goes in at the top, where it is moistened by a spray mist of seawater. As the water droplets fall, they collect particulate matter (i.e., the gunk) from the air. "You know how a rainstorm cleans the air? Well we've built a rainstorm in a tower," Prueitt explains. As the water evaporates, the air becomes cool and heavy, creating a draft that continually sucks new dirty air in at the top.

The rain-cleansed air whooshes down and out in a gentle breeze through fluted skirts in the tower's bottom. The dirty water (which now holds pollutants that used to be in the air), drops to where it is processed and returned to the sea. And as the big bonus of this whole procedure, wind turbines hidden in the tower generate free electrical power for the city's use.

Prueitt says that about 100 of these towers (at $10 million each) could be strategically deployed throughout L.A. to keep our air clean.

But wait. He isn't a one-note kind of guy. If no one picks up on his tall-tower idea, there's another in the wings. It's called HARPS (Hydro-Air Renewable Power System), and it's a smaller, less costly and more flexible method of cleaning air while generating major amounts of power.

In HARPS, the air is "scrubbed" by water, Prueitt says, while producing electric power more cheaply than fossil-fuel or nuclear power plants--and without creating pollution or toxic waste. Prueitt, of course, holds the patent on HARPS. He says his design can be made small enough to be used by one small company. Or big enough to be used by an entire city. "If enough large HARPS plants were built in the deserts of Baja California, they could supply all the electrical needs of North America," he proclaims.

It sounds like a pipe dream, but a prototype HARPS project is already being built at Hydro-Air Technologies, the business Prueitt started in Los Alamos, N.M., which was recently acquired by Solar Energy Limited. His Web site explains everything, he says. It's http://home.earthlink.net/~hydroair.

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