Can an artificial sun deactivate coronavirus? Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde thinks so

The project Urban Sun debuted in Rotterdam this week, and could be headed to Expo 2020

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Each sunrise is a tiny miracle, but Daan Roosegaarde hopes one particular dawn could dispel the darkness of our Covid-dimmed lives. Rising for the first time this week is Urban Sun, an installation that harnesses far-ultraviolet light to inactivate airborne coronaviruses in open-air spaces.

The project debuted in a public square alongside the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam on March 2, and could potentially be seen at Expo 2020 Dubai.

Urban Sun builds on studies suggesting that the light wavelength of 222 nanometres can eliminate up to 99.9 per cent of the coronavirus.

‘Let’s be the architects of our new normal’

"It started with the realisation that something physically so small as the virus is having such a huge impact on our lives," the Dutch designer and contemporary artist, 41, tells The National.

"Suddenly our world is filled with plastic barriers and distance stickers. We're afraid to shake each other's hands and family is reduced to pixels on a computer screen.

“Let’s be the architects of our new normal and create better places to meet and interact.”

The project streams concentrated 222nm UVC light from an aerostat. Courtesy Studio Roosegaarde

When Roosegaarde, who trained in art and architecture, read of specific UV light frequencies that inactivate airborne viral transmissions (without health risks to humans), he teamed up with a group of scientists and designers to see if they could help control the spread of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

“This is public knowledge that has been available for years. So why aren’t we investing in the research, in the possibilities of how light can help us?”

Harnessing UVC light at a safe frequency

Indeed, as far back as 2004, researchers from the US showed how UVC (C-type ultraviolet light) radiation at frequencies of 254nm could inactivate the original Sars-CoV virus. However, UVC light at this frequency can lead to skin cancer and cataracts, which is why its use in battling the coronavirus – including here in the UAE – has been restricted to disinfection robots and lamps that can only be used when no people are present.

But, as the past year has accelerated our uptake of technology, it took a pandemic for scientists to demonstrate, in separate studies in Japan and the US, that UVC light at lower frequencies can also work as a steriliser while remaining safe for humans.

UVC light is not harmful to humans and animals at lower frequencies. Courtesy Studio Roosegaarde

A study published in Nature magazine in June reports: "The sensitivity of the coronaviruses to far-UVC light, together with extensive safety data … suggests that it may be feasible to have the lamps providing continuous low-dose far-UVC exposure in public places – potentially reducing the probability of person-to-person transmission of coronavirus as well as other seasonal viruses such as influenza."

These findings form the basis of Urban Sun, which Roosegaarde developed using technology from Italian photobiology company MEG.

Using Urban Sun to make public spaces virus-free

The project streams concentrated 222nm UVC light from an aerostat, a kind of stationary light aircraft. Virtual simulations have shown how the installation ma be able to cleanse an area ranging from 95 square metres within minutes, which is suitable for small exhibitions, Roosegaarde claims.

If we can't imagine a better future, we won't be able to create it

“At the same time, we have designed for a larger unit of about 3,500 square metres, which could be applied in Expo 2020 Dubai, for example,” he says.

The far-UVC light source used in the Urban Sun prototype is measured and calibrated by the Dutch National Metrology Institute, and the project meets the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection safety standards, according to the designer's Studio Roosegaarde lab.

Other projects by Studio Roosegaarde

Smog-free ring. Courtesy Studio Roosegaarde

Urban Sun is one of eight "dreamscapes" that Roosegaarde will present through to 2022. "A dreamscape is a dream that we turn into reality to improve life," he says. "All eight aim to address the way we live at the moment."

That philosophy is visible in an award-winning body of work that tackles urgent, practical issues affecting the way we live – from clean air and energy to cleaning up space junk.

Several of the artist's projects reveal a fascination with light. His Smog-Free Project attacked air pollution with a seven-metre-tall vacuum cleaner using positive ionisation technology. Companion designs included air-cleaning bicycles and billboards, and a smog-free engagement or wedding ring made of compressed air particles.

The solar-powered fluorescent Van Gogh Bicycle Path, made from thousands of twinkling stones, was part of a programme to build interactive, sustainable roads that respond to live traffic situations.

Van Gogh Bicycle Path. Courtesy Studio Roosegaarde

Agricultural applications

In January, Roosegaarde debuted Grow, which showed how the sorts of lights more commonly associated with nightclubs can make agriculture more sustainable while reaffirming the importance of farmers. Building on studies carried out at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands, Roosegaarde turned a 20,000-square-metre leek field into a living social artwork, by using what he called "light recipes" – combinations of solar-powered red, blue and ultraviolet lights to enhance plant growth and resilience, and halve pesticide use.

Grow uses solar-powered red, blue and ultraviolet lights to enhance plant growth and resilience, and halve pesticide use. Courtesy Studio Roosegaarde

LED lights have been replicating the sun's action in indoor vertical farms and greenhouses for years now – including in the UAE – but Grow shows how large-scale outdoor farms could improve crop yields while reducing their environmental impact.

“Grow is an artwork, but it’s also a platform to speed up the [application of] light science because now people know about it and want it. We created this demand that was not really there before – I mean, I have 220 emails of farmers in Peru,” Roosegaarde says with a laugh.

As a city boy, the artist confesses that Grow gave him new appreciation of what it takes to grow his food. That message has already reached some 665 million people through a film on his website, but will go further when the exhibition travels to 40 countries over the next few months, highlighting the native crops in each country.

An artistic activator

Daan Rooseggarde, foto raymond rutting

Although his work borders on activism, Roosegaarde shrugs off the label, describing himself as an activator. “Activists go out and protest, which is stating an opinion. I'm an activator because I don't care about opinions. I care about proposals. And results.

“That’s driven by wonder, by imagination. If we can’t imagine a better future, we won’t be able to create it. I’m not the inventor of far-UVC light. I’m not a scientist, nor a photobiology expert, but I can create an artistic vision and put it out there and then see how the world reacts to that.

"These projects are all driven by the desire to make things that make people curious instead of scared about the future.”

Building in the desert

What about the UAE, then? From raising agricultural yields to recreating the feeling of being underwater, much of Roosegaarde's work responds to the natural challenges facing the Netherlands – but does the Rub Al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, spark the idea for a prototype?

In Europe, they usually ask : 'Are you sure you've done it before?' But in Dubai, they ask: 'Are you sure this is the first time?'

Turns out, it does – by way of high-school physics. “We’ve done some prototypes, where we direct the heat of the sun into a lens to melt the sand and create a solid mass. In essence, we’d be using the sun to make a very large 3D printer,” he says.

“The first 3D-printed commercial building is already in Dubai, and I’d use the technology to connect with local tradition. It’s not my job to reinvent the sun or the sand, but to make new connections – in this case, between sand and science."

Roosegaarde says he loves the bold thinking that has become a signature of the GCC’s approach to projects. “When I present a project in Europe, they usually ask me: ‘Are you sure you’ve done it before?’ But in the Middle East, in Dubai, they usually ask: ‘Are you sure this is the first time?’

“That says something about how you perceive the world. And I want to go to and work with places that are curious. That’s my thumb rule.”

A movie of Urban Sun is available at