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updated 5/11/2011 7:26:56 AM ET 2011-05-11T11:26:56

In the green marketing sweepstakes, Alcoa just may have come up with the catchphrase of the year: Smog-eating buildings.

The aluminum giant on Monday officially unveiled a building panel that it says not only cleans itself but the surrounding air as well.

“Candidly, when you first learn about this technology you think, ‘Wow you’ve got to be kidding,’” Craig Belnap, president of Alcoa Architectural Products, said last week when he gave me a sneak preview of the EcoClean panel at the company’s New York City offices in the iconic Lever House.

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He holds up a mini-me version of a silver aluminum-skinned building panel like you’d find on any skyscraper in anywhere U.S.A.

It looks utterly unremarkable.

But invisible to the naked eye is a coating of titanium dioxide layered on top of the silver paint. Titanium dioxide particles serve as photo catalysts and when struck by sunlight their electrons become supercharged and interact with water molecules in the air. That interaction releases free radicals that break down organic material on the building panel and pollutants such as nitrogen oxide in the surrounding atmosphere.

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“It’s really those free radicals that do all the work,” says Belnap. “They’re the components that attack organic material and oxidize them down to harmless compounds that can eventually be washed away by rain water.”

That’s because when the titanium dioxide interacts with sunlight it also creates what is called a hydrophilic surface that allows water to cascade off the panel in sheets rather than bead up.

Alcoa estimates that its self-cleaning Reynobond with EcoClean panels can cut a building’s maintenance costs by a third to a half.

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Then, of course, there’s the green bragging rights that your high-rise is soaking up smog.

Belnap insists that’s no gimmick.

“This does equate to a tree and if you have 10,000 square feet of surface of Reynobond with EcoClean, it has about the same air cleansing of 80 trees,” he says, adding that independent testing confirmed the panels’ air-cleaning properties.

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“It’s actually a significant impact on air quality,” Belnap adds, noting that aluminum panels are installed on some 14 billion square feet of buildings in North America and Europe. “If a fraction of those surfaces use the EcoClean product, it would be the equivalent of planting several million trees.”

Alcoa collaborated with Japan’s Toto on the project. Toto had previously developed titanium dioxide coatings, which covers some 200 million square feet of building surface, mainly in Japan, according to Belnap. The catch was that it had to be applied after the manufacture of the building panel, a labor-intensive and expensive endeavor.

The breakthrough came when Alcoa developed a way to integrate the titanium dioxide coating into a high-speed manufacturing process that applies paint to coils of aluminum.

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“Our current research shows it can be applied to all painted surfaces,” says Belnap. “There would be a substantial amount of research and development still to be done to get the kind of durability to cover other kinds of surfaces.”

Even cars? (Imagine your ride’s paint job counteracting the pollution spewing from tailpipe.) Theoretically, yes, but not anytime soon.

EcoClean panels will command an estimated 4 percent to 5 percent premium over the installed cost of conventional versions, a price Alcoa believes customers will be willing to pay for the long-term return on investment as well as the boost to their brands.

“We think they’ll be great interest in this EcoClean product because many of these companies are exactly the ones that are focused on sustainability,” says Belnap.

Two pilot projects are underway in Europe and North America with customers Alcoa declined to identify.

Belnap shows off a faux-wood grain-building panel.

“In Europe we’re using the tag line, ‘How much forest can I build?’ he says. “We’re trying to illustrate that not only does it look like a tree it has some of the function of a tree.”

© 2012 Forbes.com

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