This student-built electrical car purifies the air as you drive

An electric vehicle that cleans the air while driving might seem like a pipe dream, but a team of students from Eindhoven University of Technology have made it a reality. TU/ecomotive – as the team is called – has been developing inspiring, environmentally conscious concept cars for over a decade.

Among the concept vehicles presented by the students, last year’s Zem – which stands for “Zero Emission Mobility” – is the most outstanding. It is a passenger electric vehicle that not only paves the way to the vehicle’s CO2 neutrality, but also cleans the air while driving, which in turn reduces CO2 emissions.

Photo credit: TU/ecomotive

Zem was unveiled at the Louwman Museum in The Hague in July 2022. His message is clear: if a team of 32 students can build a car like this in under 12 months, what’s stopping the automotive industry from doing more?

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“We were inspired by the EU’s Green Deal,” Louise de Laat, an industrial design student and team manager of the Zem project, told TNW. “Reducing our CO2 emissions is something very important to us and we really want to build a CO2 neutral car. And that is the reason for the recent project’s focus on zero-emission mobility,” she explained.

Carbon neutral mobility requires a vehicle to have zero carbon emissions over its entire life cycle, and Zem is a striking example of how close such an electric vehicle can come to this goal.

In this article, we’ll look at how Zem achieves this through its use, production, and afterlife – and what the auto industry can learn from such schemes.

The air purification technique

As we mentioned at the beginning, Zem captures CO2 instead of emitting it. It effectively cleans the air while driving. That’s thanks to an innovative technology called Direct Air Capture (CAP), which “captures” carbon dioxide in a filter. Companies like Climeworks and Carbyon use this air purification method in large facilities. But the Zem team decided to implement it on the car.

Here’s how it works: while driving, air flows through the car into a self-constructed filter that captures and stores CO2 so that clear air can flow out of the vehicle. As a result, the total emissions of all life phases are compensated.

EV that purifies the airPhoto credit: TU/ecomotive

But what happens when the filter is saturated?

“We have developed a special charging station for this,” explains Louise. “While Zem is charging, you can remove the filter and place it in a special tank inside the pole. It takes about as long to clean the filter as it does to charge it. At the same time, the CO2 absorbed and stored in the tank can be reused and used by industries that need it, such as to produce carbon fiber,” she added.

And to increase the vehicle’s sustainability even when not in use, TU/ecomotive has equipped it with bi-directional charging technology to power homes and solar panels for energy storage.

Maximizing sustainable production and life after death

In order to achieve a high degree of sustainability, the TU/ecomotive decided on a new production process: additive manufacturing – or simply 3D printing. The team worked with partners such as CEAD and Royal3D to develop the basic structure of the car. In particular, the monocoque and the body panels.

As Louise explained, they also 3D printed parts of the interior, including the car seat pan, dashboards, center console, steering wheel and roof beams.

According to the team, this manufacturing process results in almost zero waste materials because the various car parts have been printed in the exact shape required. At the same time, they printed with circular plastics. These are already used granules that can be crushed and reused in other projects.

“You can use the same footage again to do the same event three times before it loses its specs,” Louise noted.

The vision of circularity was also applied throughout Zem’s design.

The seat cushions, for example, are made from the leftovers from pineapple production. The roof upholstery and floor mats are made of marine plastics. And by collaborating with Black Bear Carbon, recycled black carbon from worn tires has been used for the electric vehicle’s coating and tires.

As a result, the concept car encounters “as few CO2 emissions as possible” in the production phase. At the same time, the nature of the materials, their easy separability and their circularity help to keep CO2 emissions at lower levels during the end-of-use phase – especially compared to conventional cars.

concept EV Photo credit: TU/ecomotive

However, according to Louise, putting a specific figure on Zem’s total emissions via the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) method has proved extremely difficult, revealing a gap in the industry.

“We need a lot of data from the partners we source the parts from, and some of them don’t know the exact life cycle assessment of their product,” she said. On the other hand, she sees it as beneficial that this project meant her partners recognized the vehicle’s environmental footprint. She also remains confident that relevant national government and EU legislation in general will standardize the use of LCA.

According to Louise, Zem has managed to meet its goal of drastically reducing CO2 emissions as much as possible. However, the EV has drawbacks that would require further work to scale it into a marketable product.

“When you build a car in less than a year, there are some flaws that you still have to work on,” she noted. “Zem ran smoothly on the DRC track during the Tour of the US, but the closer you get to the car, the easier it is to spot its flaws.” And that’s to be expected when you’re working with new materials and new technologies in a short amount of time , Louise added.

A win-win situation for students and business partners

After completing the Zem project, a renewed team has started work on the next concept vehicle. Stijn Plekkenpol – a sustainable innovation student – ​​will lead the next project.

“What we really want to do now is build a climate-friendly car by 2030. That means a vehicle that’s marketable, that can be produced and actually has a positive impact on the environment, rather than negative ones,” Stijn told TNW.

In the meantime, Louise would like to continue working on the filter technology and would be happy to see Zem transform into a production car. After all, it is not uncommon for a student idea to become a start-up and a real product. Think of Lightyear, the now famous Dutch solar EV startup, also founded by students from Eindhoven University of Technology.

EV Photo credit: Bart van Overbeeke/TU/ecomotive

While both Louise and Stijn credit Zem’s success to the student team, “long hours and [their] Dedication,” they explained the important role that commercial samples also played.

“The majority of our partners come from the Brainport region of Eindhoven, which is known for its high R&D density and is known as the Silicon Valley of the Netherlands,” said Louise.

These partners supported the project by providing parts, materials, knowledge and financial support. And what they received in return, Louise summarized three key benefits: staff recruitment, exposure, and the joy and inspiration that comes from working with young people who bring bold ideas to the table.

Both Louise and Stjn are optimistic about the future of mobility. They believe cars will remain an integral part of transportation, but that they have the potential to be climate positive rather than increase CO2 emissions.

And as Zem shows, we should trust in the innovative ideas of younger generations and continue to seek collaboration between daring university projects and commercial partnerships.

The new concept vehicle will be unveiled on July 27th – and I can’t wait to see what the students have in store for us.

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