What’s CO2 Got To Do With It?-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, April 30, 2012

What’s CO2 Got To Do With It?

CO2 Art Fence at dusk.

Longzhu Shen and Mark Bier at the CO2 art fenceDetail of CO2 art fence

Carnegie Mellon boasts another fence that’s attracting some attention. But instead of being locked in the middle of campus, this one spans a stretch of real estate along Forbes Avenue and has recently been transformed into a timeline going back hundreds of thousands of years into the Earth’s past.

Sculpted by chemistry graduate student Longzhu Shen, the latest installation at CMU’s ArtPark Lab uses environmentally-friendly lighting to illustrate the rise and fall of carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere over the past 800,000 years. Shen hopes that it draws attention to the unprecedented rise in carbon dioxide levels since the Industrial Revolution and stimulates public discussion about sustainability.

“If you look back over 800,000 years, the carbon dioxide level fluctuated between 172 and 292 parts per million (ppm). It never passed 300ppm,” Shen said. “But the current level is about 393ppm. That is really, really striking evidence for people to consider how our behavior can impact nature and what changes need to be made toward a sustainable future.”

The art installation, What’s CO2 Got To Do With It?, comprises six 33-feet-long solar-powered LED ropes that glow a brilliant blue at nighttime. Shen and his artwork faculty sponsor, Research Professor of Chemistry Mark Bier, came up with the idea to piece together the LED ropes to recreate a graph of carbon dioxide fluctuation. Shen downloaded the CO2 data gathered from ice cores in Antarctica1 and used the computer program Mathmatica to scale the data to best fit the dimensions of the fence. Each dip and climb in carbon dioxide concentration that appears on the 68 feet of fence is as scientifically accurate as he could fasten the LED rope using nearly 500 tie wraps.

“What makes this work special is the integration of art and science. The aesthetics of art makes the scientific information fun to look at,” said Shen, who studies under the direction of Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry Terry Collins.

Shen also chairs the Environmental Group of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Pittsburgh Local Section, which received a $500 Sustainability mini-grant from the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement to support this use of art to communicate the message on sustainability as well as another green chemistry educational outreach program.

“We wanted to get people to think about this topic through art,” Bier said. “Almost every night when I walk by I see people stopping and looking at it. The astute observer will realize there is a periodicity to the blue LED rope every ~100,000 years, but to the far right, an anomaly rises upwards. It’s really fun to see someone stop and contemplate.”

Nakasha Kholgade did just that on a warm evening in late April.

“I was looking at this wall for five minutes,” Kholgade said. “I saw the timeline and then I looked all the way to the right and saw this big jump. For me, that was a very personal experience. I started thinking about it. Every day people buy new cars and they don’t think about how it is affecting the atmosphere. I think this [artwork] is a good statement to provoke emotions from people.”

What’s CO2 Got To Do With It? will be on display at the ArtPark Lab on Forbes Avenue until May 31, 2012.

  1. http://doi.pangaea.de/10.1594/PANGAEA.710901

Evening photo of fence (including detail) by Steve Ellington
Photo of Longzhu Shen and Mark Bier by Nicole Reading for MCS.