An electric car that purifies the air while driving may seem like a utopia, but a team of students from Eindhoven University of Technology has made it a reality. TU/ecomotive — as the team is called — has been creating inspiring, environmentally conscious concept cars for over a decade.
Of the concept vehicles presented by the students, last year’s Zem, which stands for “zero emission mobility”, is the most notable. It is a passenger car EV that not only paves the way to carbon neutrality of vehicles, but also cleans the air while driving, which in turn reduces CO2 emissions.
Zem was unveiled in July 2022 in the Louwman Museum in The Hague. The message is clear: if a team of 32 students can make a car like this in less than 12 months, what’s stopping the auto industry from doing more?
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“We were inspired by the EU’s Green Deal,” says Louise de Laat, Industrial Design student and team manager of the Zem project, to TNW. “Reducing our carbon emissions is something very important to us, and we really want to make a carbon neutral car. And that is the reason for the recent project’s focus on zero-emission mobility,” she explains.
Carbon neutral mobility requires a vehicle to have no CO2 emissions throughout its life cycle, and Zem is a striking example of how close to this goal an EV like this can come.
In this piece, we look at how Zem achieves this through use, production and the afterlife – and what the auto industry can learn from plans like this.
The air cleaning technology
As we said at the beginning, instead of emitting CO2, Zem captures it. It effectively cleans the air while driving. That’s thanks to an innovative technology called Direct Air Capture (CAP), which “traps” carbon dioxide in a filter. Companies like Climbing work and Carbyon apply this air cleaning method through large installations. But the Zem team decided to implement it on the car.
It works like this: while driving, air passes through the car to a self-designed filter, which captures and stores CO2, allowing clean air to flow out of the vehicle. This compensates for the total emissions from all life stages.
But what happens when the filter is saturated?
“We designed a special charging station for this,” explains Louise. “While Zem is charging, you can remove the filter and place it in a special container inside the pole. Cleaning the filter takes about the same time as charging. At the same time, the CO2 absorbed and stored in the tank can be reused and used by industries that need it, for example to make carbon fibres,” she added.
And to increase the durability of the vehicle even when not in use, TU/ecomotive has equipped its bi-directional charging technology to power homes, as well as solar panels to store energy.
Maximize sustainable production and afterlife
To achieve a high degree of sustainability, TU/ecomotive opted for a new production method: additive manufacturing, or 3D printing. The team worked with partners – such as CEAD and Royal3D — to develop the fundamental 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 shell, dashboards, center console, steering wheel and roof bars.
According to the team, this manufacturing process results in almost no waste material, because the various car parts are printed in the exact shape that is needed. At the same time, they did printing with circular plastics. These are granules that have already been used and can be shredded and reused in other projects.
“You can reuse that same material to make the same event three times before it loses its specs,” Louise noted.
The vision of circularity has also been implemented in Zem’s design.
For example, the upholstery of the chairs is made from the residue that is released during the production of pineapples. The headliner and floor mats are ocean plastic. And through the collaboration with Black bear carbonrecycled black carbon from worn tires is used for the coating and tires of the EV.
As a result, the concept car boasts “as little CO2 emissions as possible” during the production phase. At the same time, the types of materials, their ease of separation and their circularity all contribute to keeping CO2 emissions at a lower level during the end-of-use phase, especially compared to conventional cars.
But according to Louise, it proved to be a huge challenge to give a specific figure to Zem’s total emissions through the Zem Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) method, which reveals a gap in the industry.
“We need a lot of data from the partners we get the parts from and some don’t know the exact LCA of their product,” she said. On the plus side, she thinks it’s beneficial that this project meant their partners recognized the vehicle’s carbon footprint. She also remains hopeful that the respective legislation of national governments and the EU in general will standardize the use of LCA.
According to Louise, Zem has succeeded in achieving its goal of drastically reducing CO2 emissions as much as possible. Still, the EV has drawbacks that require further work to enable scale-up into a salable product.
“If you build a car in less than a year, there will be some flaws that you still have to work on,” she noted. “Zem drove smoothly on the DRC circuit on the US tour, but the closer you get to the vehicle, the easier it is to see the flaws.” And that’s to be expected when you’re working with new materials and new technologies in a short period of time, Louise added.
A win-win for students and commercial partners
With the Zem project completed, a revamped team has set to work on the next concept vehicle. Stijn Plekpol — student of sustainable innovation — will lead the next project.
“What we really want to do now is to build a climate-positive car by 2030. This means a vehicle that is tradable, can be produced and actually has a positive impact on the environment instead of a negative one,” Stijn told TNW. .
In the meantime, Louise wants to keep working on the filter technology and would like to see Zem turn into a mass-produced car. After all, it is not uncommon for a student concept to grow into a start-up and a real-life product. Think about Light yearthe now famous solar EV Dutch startup, which was also started by students from Eindhoven University of Technology.
While both Louise and Stijn attribute Zem’s success to the student team “long working hours and [their] dedication,” they explained the crucial role commercial patterns also played.
“The majority of our partners come from the Eindhoven Brainport region, which is known for its high R&D density and is also referred to as the Silicon Valley of the Netherlands,” says Louise.
These partners supported the project by supplying parts, materials, knowledge and financial support. And in terms of what they get in return, Louise listed three main benefits: employee recruitment, notoriety, and the joy and inspiration that come from working with young people who bring bold ideas.
Both Louise and Stjn have an optimistic view of the future of mobility. They believe that cars will continue to be an integral part of transportation, but that they have the potential to be climate positive rather than contribute to carbon emissions.
And, as Zem shows, we must rely on the innovative ideas of the younger generations, seeking further collaboration between bold university projects and commercial partnerships.
The new concept vehicle will be revealed on July 27 – and I can’t wait to see what the students have in store for us, for example.