This solar-powered electric car cleans carbon from the air as it drives


(CNN) – Silver, sleek and sporty, Zem wouldn’t look out of place in a supercar championship. But the Zem is not like other sports cars, or just any car.

The unique prototype cleans carbon from the air while driving.

Using a carbon capture device on its bottom, the solar battery electric vehicle absorbs and stores more CO2 than it emits. To reduce waste and production emissions, the body and frame are 3D printed from recycled plastic, and the interior is lined with vegan leather made from pineapple.

This sci-fi creation was invented and built by a team of 35 students from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands as part of their ongoing TU/ecomotive project, in which students create concept cars based on innovative technology.

“We’ve implemented so much technology into one car to really show what it can all do together,” says Louise de Laat, project team leader.

In the future, the students hope to retrofit carbon capture technology into existing vehicles, helping to combat some of the emissions from the one billion passenger cars currently on the world’s roads.

The team of 35 students took nine months to develop the car, and completed it in May 2022.

Bart van Overbeeke

A tool that eats carbon

Since 2013, TU/ecomotive has invited students from various disciplines to collaborate on year-long innovation projects to build sustainable vehicles.

The team’s goal for 2021 was “zero-emission mobility”, which gave the car its name: Zem.

Incorporating various technologies from partner sponsors — such as lithium-ion batteries from the Cleantron Netherlands company and Watllab solar panels that provide up to 15% of the car’s charge — the student team is conducting a life-cycle analysis with SimaPro software to estimate carbon. emissions for the construction, use and afterlife of the car.

Realizing that achieving carbon neutrality was impossible, the team set out to find a way to remove carbon from the air.

Zem has two filters under the car, next to each front wheel. Air passes through the filter while the car is being driven, and the CO2 sticks to a special bead inside the filter. The filter needs to be emptied every 200 kilometers, so the students designed a custom EV charging station where CO2 can be extracted from it. It can then be reused in the production of other fuels, such as pure hydrogen, or stored underground in geological formations to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere.

However, the team’s device shows a proof of concept. The students are currently applying for a patent, and Laat plans to develop and improve the carbon capture technology in a spin-off startup.

Zem is 3D printed using recycled plastic reinforced with fiberglass or carbon fiber, which the students say reduces material waste.

Zem is 3D printed using recycled plastic reinforced with fiberglass or carbon fiber, which the students say reduces material waste.

Bart van Overbeeke

‘Moonshot thinking’

Although carbon capture technology is essential for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, its development has been slow. In 2020, 44 million tonnes of CO2 were captured – just 13% of the target, according to the International Energy Agency.

The amount of CO2 captured by the student’s device may be limited, but this prototype is an important first step, says Carlo van de Weijer, a researcher at Eindhoven University of Technology.

Weijer has spent decades working in the automotive industry, including executive positions at Siemens and TomTom, and mentored innovation teams in Eindhoven for years.

“If you consider that we’re never going to be 100% fossil fuel-free, or at least a carbon-free economy, then we have to get (CO2) out of the air,” says Weijer.

The EV revolution has reduced tailpipe emissions, but emissions from vehicle production are still a growing problem. According to a 2021 report by the non-profit International Clean Transportation Council, manufacturing a mid-size electric vehicle in Europe produces two metric tons more in CO2 equivalent than a conventional car.
Two carbon capture filters under the hood of the car and store CO2, which helps to offset the emissions produced by the vehicles driving.

Two carbon capture filters under the hood of the car and store CO2, which helps to offset the emissions produced by the vehicles driving.

Bart van Overbeeke

Weijer describes the goal of zero-emission mobility as “bold and crazy thinking,” but says wild ideas often lead to great breakthroughs. If the team’s carbon-capture technology is scalable, he says, it could not only be retrofitted into cars, but could work as an autonomous, mobile technology.

“We have huge environmental challenges for the future,” says Weijer. “If something comes out of Zeme as a spin-off, then that would be fantastic – it could help with this huge problem.”

Innovators vs industry

The team finished building the car in May this year and began a tour of the US in August. The US is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases per capita, and nearly a third of these emissions come from transportation. That’s why the band, based in the Netherlands, chose to tour there instead of Europe, says Nikki Okkels, head of external relations at TU/ecomotive.

“We hope to see more examples like Zem come forward because we recognize that the industry is moving slowly in sustainability,” says Okkel. Traveling from San Francisco to New York, the team met with major automotive companies along the way, which Okkel hopes will push the industry closer to zero.

Zem is not yet road legal, but Louise de Laat says the next group of students will work to overcome some of these regulatory challenges.

Zem is not yet road legal, but Louise de Laat says the next group of students will work to overcome some of these regulatory challenges.

Bart van Overbeeke

“We got it right: 35 students with a lot of enthusiasm but with a lot less experience than the main industry we’re competing against,” says Okkel, adding that without the regulatory restrictions of large companies, they have more room to experiment. “We are showing the big industry what is possible.”

Unfortunately, the team couldn’t drive Zem on the US road trip: 3D-printed vehicles aren’t road legal, so they had to tow the car. “The next team will collaborate (with the road authorities) on this process, and maybe we will be able to make a road-legal car in the future,” says Laat.

Zem wraps up its US tour in October and will return to Europe, where future student teams will continue to evolve the concept to one day put a carbon-neutral vehicle on the road.

For now, Laat is forging ahead with his dream of deploying carbon capture technology, which he hopes can help avert a climate catastrophe.

“Imagine if you could implement this (device) in all those other vehicles around the world,” says Laat. “And maybe not just cars, but also trains, big trucks, ships or planes. There are many possibilities.”