‘Painting the sky brilliant white with Titania’s ubiquitous dust’ – cautious thoughts on atmospheric modification

‘They came in tiny parachutes

dissolving through the atmosphere

From planes not seen or heard’

Slab (1987) ‘Undriven Snow’


This blog essay is about the atmosphere, specifically the alien-ness of matter in the atmosphere. It is about attitudes towards the vastness of an uninhabitable portion of our world and specifically the material strangeness invoked by news of a gravity defying plan to inject earth into the sky.

Sky – the final frontier

Peter Sloterdijk (2009) has characterised the twentieth century as the era of ‘explication’ of the atmosphere. In his book he points out how during the last century the sky came to be knowable, occupy-able and weaponise-able in ways previously beyond comprehension. Before the ‘modern’ era, the sky was unattainable, majestic and unbounded. The sky was heavenly, or at least a transition to a ‘higher’ realm beyond. Up was blessed, down was cursed. Sky was rampant ‘other’ – nature bringing events to man (life giving rain and sun, and death bringing storm and drought) at times and places of its choosing.

What Sloterdijk presents is a glimpse of how the heavens were brought down to earth, rendered human (or at least brought within the reach of human influence) during the last 100 years. He builds his argument around the advent of airborne warfare, and specifically chemical warfare (direct attack against atmosphere’s life sustaining properties). I instead want to look at human interaction with the sky from the perspective of atmospheric engineering, specifically via one ubiquitous powder, nano particles of titanium dioxide.

Titania’s white power

I’ve been preparing a lecture this week in which I’m trying to show the breadth of environmental law in a very short teaching slot. I’ve chosen titanium dioxide as a case study, and I’m really glad that I’ve taken my investigation in that direction. Because TiO2 offers even more holistic weirdness than I’d thought it would.

Titanium dioxide (otherwise known as Titania), is a mineral pigment made from titanium ore. The ore is extracted from the ground in vast open mines, it is then shipped around the world to large energy (and acid) guzzling production sites. The resulting pigment gives plastics and rubber opacity and whiteness and is used in a diverse range of everyday products such as art paints, printing inks, paper, ceramics, textiles, glass, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food (where its presence is as food additive ‘E171’). Our modern world would look very different without this white power additive. In the US per capita titanium dioxide ‘consumption’ is 3.4kg per year (est. 1991).

Titanium is the ninth most common element in the earth’s crust, and over 90% of extracted ore is processed into millions of tonnes of titanium dioxide pigment. It was adopted in the twentieth century as a replacement for the toxic pigment, white lead. First extracted from ore in 1908, commercial pigment production commenced in 1918. In the 1990s it was discovered that titanium dioxide when irradiated by sunlight has photocatalytic and hydrophilic effects which have now been commercialised into coatings that rendering glass ‘self-cleaning’, and enable coated paving slabs in Japan to ‘eat’ atmospheric pollution (Emsley 2012).

Painting the sky

It is a proposal to inject millions of tons of titanium dioxide into the upper atmosphere as a way of tackling climate change that has caught my attention. Ker Than (2012) describes a plan proposed by Davidson Technology, to disperse the white power using high-altitude balloons so as to form a sunscreen layer a millionth of a millimetre thick that would absorb and reflect sunlight, offsetting some of the climate changing global warming effects attributable to greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere from other human activities. Titanium dioxide has the highest refractive index amongst known materials – it is the whitest of whites (although some TiO2 nano-particles are actually transparent: TDMA 2012).

Than’s depiction of the delivery method, of hoses flying up skyward, paints a surreal picture – very Dali-esque (or Heath-Robinson, take your pick):

For Davidson’s project, a slurry containing titanium dioxide would be pumped skyward via flexible pipes, which would be hoisted aboard unmanned balloons flying about 12 miles (20 kilometers) high. A “hypersonic nozzle” would then spray the slurry as fine particles into Earth’s upper atmosphere.”

Than also notes that this would be a long term project – the injection having to continue for centuries until atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases reduce (which would require changes to on-the-ground manufacturing and carbon dependency).

According to Than Davidson estimates his own plan’s costs as around $900 million per year, plus up to $3 billion per year for the titanium dioxide. Presently (2010 figures) world production of this mineral powder is just under 4 million tons (1.48 million from US production sources, 2.19 million from China), with five multinational companies having a 64% market share (Mowat 2012). Taking the current price per ton as around $3,000 (Hemmerling 2011) this suggests the plan would require an extra 1 million ton of titanium dioxide to be produced each year, with an attendant 20% increase in ore mining, processing and distribution of this white dust to the remote balloon launch sites from which it would be shuttled and pumped up into the sky.

Matter out of place       

As an environmental lawyer what strikes me about this potential interplay between mineral earth and sky is the fine line between pollution and ‘solution’. As Mary Douglas (1966: 50) said, dirt is “matter out of place”. It’s all about context. Intentionally injecting titanium dioxide into the atmosphere is portrayed in Davidson’s plan as environmental augmentation of the air, yet more often the titanium dioxide industry has been framed as a polluter of land and water. Depending on the precise production techniques used titanium dioxide production waste includes dilute sulphuric acid, solid residue (chloride or sulphate salts), ore and pigment dust and gaseous emissions (Lane 1991).

The titanium dioxide industry was one of the first manufacturing industries to be singled out for special legislative attention by the European Commission. In 1972 Corsica brought legal proceedings against an Italian titanium dioxide plant following sufferance of ‘red mud’ discharges afflicting the Mediterranean coast (production of each ton of the white powder produces a greater volume of waste that has to be disposed of, traditionally via pumping it into the sea)(Hague 1992). The Commission was concerned that inter-state disputes about this aquatic pollution could undermine the harmony of European trade in this increasingly important industrial commodity and thus a Directive was issued in 1978 to harmonise how each member state should regulate these plants and their emissions. Subsequent Directives focused upon environmental monitoring of the effects of permitted disposal routes for this waste, including dumping on land or injecting it into the soil.

These measures were early instances of international environmental law – born of a realisation that drifting plumes of red mud have no notion of national borders. As with the sea, so with the sky. Pollution emissions or remedial nano particle infusions into the sky would also need international consensus before emission, for clouds will drift where they will.

Aerography and appreciating the alien-ness of the sky

In the twentieth century we came to view ‘airspace’ as national territory, rather than private property. Technically, under English common law principles (as recorded by William Blackstone in 1769), a landowner owns the column of air above his land, right up to the ‘top’ of the sky. Whilst legislation abrogates this principle in order to allow aviation to cross his airspace, no provision has yet been made to allow the installation of an upper atmosphere sun shield above plots of land. Outer space (the space beyond atmosphere) is via international treaty terra nullis, owned by no-one. But in theory at least airspace within the atmosphere is private property of the surface owner.

Ownership of the sky is pretty irrelevant unless you can defeat gravity. The sky is not naturally inhabitable or meaningfully possessible. Matter is not normally installable in the sky. Gravity is a timeless force that normally keeps our thoughts, actions and concerns at or near ground level. But the titanium dioxide plan, is another instance of the gravity defying explication of the sky that Sloterdijk has conceptualised, and if ever implemented would have material consequences upon the ground (more titanium ore mining, more processing, more soil and water pollution, more energy consumption) and also novel legal ramifications in terms of sky-ownership.

Perhaps the danger here is that – via this march of explication – we are trying to conceptually and physically approach the sky as we do land. Introducing a collection of essays acknowledging geography’s fixation with the geo (i.e. land and matter)Jackson & Fannin (2011) speculate on what a genuinely understanding ‘aerography’ would need to look like, and how it would to differ from geography in order to break free of what Henri Bergson called ‘the logic of solids’.

We would laugh if anyone were to suggest that the sky was a solid, but if we are at the brink of demarking it as territory into which material can be permanently inserted then we are at risk of transposing that solids logic into an alien world to which it may never be suited, regardless of the reach of our gravity defying technologies.

The permanent colonisation of sky-space by matter could also, of course, have unforeseeable chemical and/or climactic effects. In time would have to reap what we sow: the atmosphere might resist the explicatory logic of the human plan and reassert its sovereignty of the sky.  Perhaps here we can leave the last word to another Titania, the queen of the fairies in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II, Scene i):

“…the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.”


References and sources:

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London

Emsley, J. (2012) ‘Fujishima is suggested as a possible Nobel Prize winner “for the discovery of photocatalytic properties of titanium dioxide known as the Honda-Fujishima Effect” Science Watch, http://sciencewatch.com/nobel/predictions/titanium-dioxide-photocatalysis

Hague, N. (1992) Manual of Environmental Policy: the EC and Britain, Longman: London.

Hemmerling, K. (2011) ‘Titanium Dioxide could give these 10 stocks a boost’ http://seekingalpha.com/article/259447-titanium-dioxide-could-give-these-10-stocks-a-boost

Jackson, M & Fannin, M (2011) ‘Letting geography fall where it may – aerographies address the elemental’ Environment & Planning D: Society & space, 29, 435-444

Lane, D.A. (1991) ‘Pollution caused by waste from the titanium dioxide industry – Directive 89/428’ Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 14(2) 425-434

Mowat, R. (2012) ‘TiO2 Titanium Dioxide Companies’ http://www.vanadiumsite.com/titanium-dioxide/ti02-companies/

Sloterdijk, P. (2009) Terror From the Air, Semiotext(e): Los Angeles (trans. Amy Patton & Steve Corcoran)

Than, K. (2012) ‘Sunscreen in the sky? Reflective particles may combat warming’ National Geographic Daily News http://news.nationalgeographic.co.uk/news/2012/05/120529-global-warming-titanium-dioxide-balloons-earth-environment-science/

TDMA (Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association) (2012) About Titanium Dioxide TDMA web site: http://www.tdma.info/

Photo credit: Nikki Clayton – http://www.flickr.com/photos/clikkinayton/8144742751/sizes/z/in/photostream/


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

2 Responses to ‘Painting the sky brilliant white with Titania’s ubiquitous dust’ – cautious thoughts on atmospheric modification

  1. Caroline says:

    Just wonderful article! I’m studying the material ecology of Titanium Dioxide in a course at the Harvard Design School. I was drawn to this ubiquitous, thus seemingly invisible force coating our world after hearing about the DuPont spy case involving stolen TiO2 processing information, exported to China.

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