As the title states, is it even possible to remove hazardous air chemicals in Earth?

I think I could list the pollutants which I think we could remove, these are the following :

  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
  • Carbon monoxide (CO)
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2)

I was watching The Day the Earth Stood Still, the scene where the robot became some sort of bug that "cleans" anything from its path, If that happens, even if humans were removed from the face of the earth, there will still be pollution in the atmosphere (am I right here?). And is it even possible to use the same method to destroy the chemicals found in our air?


I'm also thinking that If you remove these chemicals, you also remove oxygen in the atmosphere, is it even possible to filter these elements?

  • $\begingroup$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Nov 8 '17 at 9:30
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    $\begingroup$ Mr.J Im going to suggest not bothering to attempt to fix this question in order to reopen it, Instead I suggest asking this in the chat so people can help you better understand the 'science'. This question is unrecoverable because its scientifically flawed from its conceptual assumptions. $\endgroup$ – anon Nov 9 '17 at 1:03
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    $\begingroup$ There will always be pollution. Forests burn. Volcanoes erupt. Animals are flatulent. Removing all the humans doesn't remove all the pollution, just our contribution. (That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, though.) $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 9 '17 at 1:31
  • $\begingroup$ This table should give an idea about "natural" cleaning time. Problem with pollution is not that it can't be cleaned, problem is that civilization keeps on polluting. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Nov 9 '17 at 1:39

This question makes little sense unless you define a bit more precisely what you mean by "pollutants".

As others already said a lot of different substances may be regarded as pollutants in one context and "required food" in another.

I assume You really mean: "is it possible to restore Earth to a status where artificial, man made, products are not detectable?"

Aside from the question if this is really useful or not and also which kind of past condition you want to return to, the general answer is: some kind of damage is permanent, others may be reverted.

One kind of "permanent" damage is what we did by mining (almost) all useful minerals easily accessible (not just fuels) and dispersing them in the ecosystem. Re-gathering all of them from traces is going to be a next-to-impossible task. Another kind, perhaps less "severe" is mountains we (partially) destroyed to cave building materials (again leaving debris, possibly dangerous as asbestos, scattered in almost-unrecoverable particles).

Other may be reversible, with time, energy or both. $C O_2$ pollution can be contrasted with natural (let forests grow and no not use the wood for fire!) or "technological" (pump it some kilometer underground) means. Cleaning up oceans from all plastic we put there would be a daunting task, but feasible, given time and energy.

Real problem is we cannot even think about repairing damage till we are in the loop of doing even more damage. First and foremost we should find a way to reduce human population at least by an order of magnitude and we see no way to do that (wars have proven ineffective).

We might have to rely on cleaning-robots after some catastrophic collapse :(

  • $\begingroup$ "I assume You really mean: "is it possible to restore Earth to a status where artificial, man made, products are not detectable?". This does not make any more sense because a pollutant is a pollutant, no matter how it ended up there or who made it. If you want a rigid definition of pollution: "Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into the natural environment that cause adverse change". $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Nov 8 '17 at 9:34
  • $\begingroup$ Down-vote because this does not really answer the question but just ruminates on environmental damage in general. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Nov 8 '17 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelK: I disagree with Your "rigid definition of pollution" urine is a pollutant if a horde of Huns piss together in a creek, but it's not considered so if a deer releases the same substance in a wood. Even the page you link actually makes frequent reference to human activities: "Pollution started from prehistoric times when man created the first fires"; surely smoke existed before, but was not considered "pollution" because not man-made. My assumption is valid. I also disagree with downvote, but that's another matter. $\endgroup$ – ZioByte Nov 8 '17 at 11:05
  • $\begingroup$ If a horde of deer releive themselves in your drinking water, will you then think "Oh that is just fine, because they are nature"? Also, if your drinking water well is naturally full of arsenic (a big problem in for insance Bangladesh), will you then say "This is not polluted, because it was not humans that caused the arsenic to be there"? And for the record: human urine is aseptic, which means that apart from the "Yuck" factor, human urine in drinking water is not actually much of a pollutant. Excrement however, that is a different story. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Nov 8 '17 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Nov 8 '17 at 12:03

Sure, we just need lots of energy. However...

All compound molecules will fall apart of we heat them to become hot enough to become plasma. This can be used to mitigate pollution. The method is known as a "plasma arc recycling". Heating things is easy. We just add lots of energy to these substances by means of any of a myriad known processes.

So if these "bugs" are like little mini-reactors that heat air to plasma to make compounds fall apart, then they could reduce pollution substantially, yes.

However — and here is the crux — the majority of our air pollution today comes from...

...energy production.

The very thing you need to break down pollutants, is what caused the pollution in the first place.

You need to invent a perfectly clean, or at least: clean enough, source of energy. Then we can start 1) replacing all old dirty forms of energy production, coal, oil, gas and biomass in particular to stop the addiction of pollutants to the atmosphere and 2) breaking down existing pollutants.

But is there no way around the need for energy?

No, there really is not. The pollutants exist because we used those substances to extract energy from them. If you want to break them apart, then you need to do the opposite and add energy to them.

  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure the way you edited the OP's question is within his intention. For sure it gives sense to your answer. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Nov 8 '17 at 8:53
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch It is because — as you point out in your comment — "hazardous chemical" is an inherently problematic term while "pollutant" is much clearer and unambiguous. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Nov 8 '17 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with it, but since it deeply changes the meaning of the question, I would have let the OP do the change. Now it is your question. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Nov 8 '17 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch No it does not change the meaning of OP's question, especially since the headline always said "air pollution" and OP again later uses the term "pollution". . $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Nov 8 '17 at 9:11
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelK That's the point at which you should prefer to vote to close as unclear, and in a comment, ask what the OP intended, rather than assuming either way and changing the question to be what you think is right. The title isn't necessarily magically more correct than the question body, nor is it necessarily the other way around. If the two don't agree, ask which was intended, and if the difference makes the question difficult or impossible to answer, vote to close until the issue is settled. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 8 '17 at 9:14

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