Anti-pollution tunnels and paraffinic fuel form part of government air quality strategy

Image of James Kelly
Author: | Updated: 04 Aug 2017 16:17

Highways England’s proposal to create protective pollution tunnels on fume-ridden motorways might sound like something out of Futurama, but it’s not, it’s all part of the agency’s latest air quality strategy to tackle vehicle emissions.


It’s claimed that these tunnels will be covered in a polymer material with the potential to absorb NO2 and other harmful exhaust gases.  But before we gear up for undercover motorways, would it really be like driving through a tunnel?

Highways England said: “We have identified that a cantilever barrier or canopy, which is a tunnel-like structure designed to prevent vehicle emissions, might be a possible solution, though the air quality benefits of this are still to be fully understood.”

In a rather more low-tech project, it is trialling two wooden pollution barriers on a stretch of the M62, which suggests there’s still some work to go before we see any form of tunnel.

blurry traffic pollution

The barrier is only three-metres and coated in a material that absorbs nitrogen dioxide, so the idea is going to need some serious honing before any form of tunnel is possible. But is it worth developing?

There’s an argument that as the government moves to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040, there’s not much point in constructing these barriers. But 23 years is still a long time, considering pollution is responsible for 40,000 premature deaths in England and Wales each year.

The Department for Transport also predicts that traffic volumes could increase by 55% between 2010 and 2040 and, while uptake of cleaner vehicles is beginning to increase, the vast majority of new cars registered will be petrol and diesel for the foreseeable future.

Detrimental for drivers?

On the other hand, the RAC has pointed out that pollution tunnels could adversely affect air quality for those in the cars. Nick Lyes, RAC spokesman said: “We question whether constructing tunnel-like canopies is the right way to deal with the problem.

“All this will do is concentrate potentially toxic air over the road which will have an impact on those inside their vehicles who breathe in the trapped pollution.”

busy motorway

A Highways England spokesperson said that these physical barriers are already in use in other European countries and provide “an effective safeguard to communities near busy roads”.

“The best solution to accommodating the extra traffic on our roads, without negatively impacting on air quality, is low-emission vehicles. In the meantime we are investing £100m to test new ideas including less-polluting fuels and road barriers which absorb harmful emissions.”

Paraffinic fuel study

In fact, it may be those less-polluting fuels rather than pollution tunnels that we’ll soon see in the headlines. That’s because the Highways Agency has commissioned a study to test the emissions from vehicles using a paraffinic fuel, which could be an alternative for all diesel engines.

diesel pump

What's paraffinic fuel you say? It’s a new generation of cleaner fuel made from natural gas, biomass or the treatment of vegetable oils or animal fats that produces far less harmful particulate matter.

The good news is that paraffinic fuel can be used in existing diesel vehicles without modifications, and as it can be used neat or blended in existing diesel engines, distribution and refuelling infrastructure, no additional upfront investment from consumers or the government is required, according to ASFE.

So, while the so-called pollution tunnels may help reduce emissions on a local level, it’s by no means the most effective. Who knows; with cleaner-burning fuel on the way maybe we shouldn’t call time on diesel just yet.

Just in case that doesn’t work though, some of that £100m is going to boost the UK’s EV charging network.

What do you think about the proposals? Do you think pollution tunnels could work? Let us know in the comments below.

Your Comments

Previous Post Next Post