Here’s a little chemistry lesson for you: Photosynthesis—the process by which plants convert sunlight into food and oxygen—requires two molecular ingredients: water and carbon-dioxide. These same core ingredients are also the byproduct of combustion—the type of combustion that occurs when an engine burns fuel and releases CO2 into the atmosphere.
The fact that the molecular building blocks of photosynthesis are the same as the molecular byproducts of combustion is a kind of cosmic irony. But for scientists, it’s an opportunity. Some researchers are developing strains of algae that can be grown in smoke stacks and gas flues to, in effect, absorb carbon emissions through photosynthesis. Others are finding ways to convert the chemical energy generated by photosynthesis into electrical energy.
But what about the filthy, century-old internal combustion engine? That is perhaps the mostly deeply embedded polluter on the planet, and, despite the great promise of electric vehicles, it will be for some time.
With this in mind, Param Jaggi, an 18-year-old student at Vanderbilt University, founded Ecoviate and built its first product, the CO2ube carbon filtration system.
Carbon filtration systems are not new—there have been previous attempts at tailpipe add-ons. The problem with existing devices is that they only sequester carbon dioxide, meaning the pollutants may leach away in time. What makes the CO2ube so interesting is that it uses chemical processes to convert emitted CO2 into less harmful byproducts. It does this through two reactions.
The first is photosynthesis. Within the CO2ube filter is a series of strategically located plates. Each of these surfaces is covered in a proprietary strain of algae best suited for rapid photosynthesis, the products of which are oxygen and glucose (to sustain the algae)—and a much smaller amount of emitted CO2.
Obviously, the CO2 emissions from a gas engine are too rapid for photosynthesis alone to handle. So the folks at Ecoviate introduced a second chemical reaction.
The staggered placement of the above mentioned plates also increases the surface area of emitted CO2; this acts as a coolant and turns much of the CO2 into aqueous CO2, or carbonic acid. Also embedded in the CO2ube filter is sodium hydroxide, with which the carbonic acid reacts to create sodium carbonate, which is harmless, neutral, and disposable.
Combined, these two basic chemical reactions can drastically reduce a vehicle’s CO2 emissions. The CO2ube can fit onto any exhaust pipe and, when released, will retail for just $60. Furthermore, Ecoviate plans to release a smartphone app that will allow owners to track their car's carbon emissions.
We think the chemistry behind this product is brilliant, but there are a few downsides. One, each CO2ube filter lasts only 8–10 weeks. Two, the only real benefit here is for the environment—owners will not save money on their gas consumption. So it begs the question: Do you want to spend $60 every couple of months on something that does nothing but reduce your personal carbon footprint? Some people may, but a lot won’t.
Ecoviate seems well aware of the drawbacks; the tiny startup is currently petitioning to allow CO2ube-equipped cars to ride in HOV lanes. They are also working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to grant tax credits to CO2ube owners, providing that much-needed financial incentive.
We also imagine the CO2ube, or something like it, will be attractive to public transportation services—and some private institutions looking to improve their environmental marketing. Eventually, car manufacturers may take to installing their own versions of the CO2ube.
But here’s why the CO2ube is important: Gas engine vehicles are going to be around for a long time. Even when electric vehicles become more practical, many consumers will have to stick to their old carbon burners out of sheer economic necessity. It will probably take several decades for the internal combustion engine to be completely replaced.
So whether or not the CO2ube takes off, we’re going to need something like it to reduce the harmful emissions from gasoline engines. The fact that an 18-year-old kid has already offered a viable solution bodes well for the coming generation.
Currently a Kickstarter project, the CO2ube is aiming to raise $18,000 by August 21; at the time of this writing it had raised about $4,600.