Dutch inventors have come up with what they say is the world’s first giant air vacuum cleaner. But it won't be cleaning a carpet any time soon.

It is an outdoor vacuum cleaner; it sucks in dirty air, filters it and then pumps it back out, clean. The filter is a specially designed, five-step affair, which can even pick up ultra-fine particles.

Image: Envinity Group

Fine particles are caused by emissions from burning wood and other fuels. Ultra-fine are those smaller than 0.1 micrometres, which come from car and airplane emissions, for instance. We can't see the particles, but we breathe them in all the time, and they cause a variety of health problems.

According to the World Health Organisation, exposure to high concentrations of fine and ultra fine particles are linked to early deaths. Ultra fine particles are particularly dangerous because they can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs and can even affect our brain cells.

Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer.

The vacuum cleaner

The Dutch inventors say that their machine can filter 95% of ultra-fine particles and 100% of fine particles out of the air. It cleans 80,000 m³ of air per hour within a 300-meter radius and up to a height of 7km.

"It's a large industrial filter about 8 metres long, made of steel ... placed basically on top of buildings and it works like a big vacuum cleaner," said Henk Boersen, a spokesman for the Envinity Group, which unveiled the system at an energy conference in Amsterdam.

“A large column of air will pass through the filter and come out clear,” Boersen told AFP at the conference.

The Envinity Group is a tech start-up that aims to improve the future for people, animals and the environment in a sustainable manner. Many businesses and countries are already interested in the cleaner, according to the group.

Children breathe in dirty air

It comes at a time when UNICEF is urging governments to do more about air pollution. It has released a report that says that 300 million children – that's almost one in seven of the world's children – breathe air that is six or more times more toxic than international guidelines advise.

“Air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year – and it threatens the lives and futures of millions more every day,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “Pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs – they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains – and, thus, their futures. No society can afford to ignore air pollution.”

In 2014, 92% of the world population was living in places where the WHO air quality guidelines levels were not met.

"Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health," says WHO. "By reducing air pollution levels, countries can reduce the burden of disease from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma."

The enormous vacuum cleaner is not the only thing people have come up with as a way to clean our air. A recent BBC news item reported on a study by US-based The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which found that the average reduction of particulate matter near a tree was between 7% and 24%. Planting trees is a cost-effective way to tackle urban air pollution, which is a growing problem for many cities, said the BBC.

Elsewhere, in China, a 7-metre tall tower made of aluminum and powered by electricity is designed to clean up its toxic air. Not only that, but it turns the resulting carbon deposits into diamonds.