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Cosmic Venus dust inspires pollution cleaning automobile tech

When talking climate innovation, carbon removal is the trendy topic. Researchers from The Conservation, however, are preoccupied with the more immediate threat of nitrogen oxides – found in urban pollution.

It sounds cliché to say that inspiration can be found within the stars, but climate innovators are proving exactly that.

Right now, efforts to utilise tech for the future prosperity of the planet largely revolve (no pun intended) around decarbonisation. Whether we’re talking ocean geoengineering, direct air capture, or green fuel alternatives, the main adversary is unquestionably carbon.

Making up around 76% of all greenhouse gas emissions, CO2 will be most responsible for any marked shifts within our climate – should we fail to reverse our impacts and peak emissions within the next decade.

Carbon > Nitrogen

As we obsess over this target, however, the more immediate health threat of urban air pollution (more specifically, nitrogen dioxide) is being overlooked despite stats pointing to associated death tolls topping 10,000 in Europe every year.

That’s not to say that all eco-conscious tech buffs are ignoring local air pollution, though. Aiming to bottleneck one of its key drivers: traffic, a cohort of innovators and researchers at The Conservation unveiled their next generation of catalytic converter in June, capable of blighting more fumes than ever at source.

While catalytic convertors are already designed to minimise the amount of toxic chemicals that seep from vehicle exhausts, this team refined its design to stifle even more nitrogen oxide without the known drawbacks of today’s types.

Now, this is both random and odd, granted, but the team were inspired not by traditional car mechanics or modern engineering, but rather the otherworldly chemistry observed on the hot and volatile surface of Venus. Ah, of course.

Otherworldly principles here on Earth

While we can’t quite comprehend how whole outer space connection was made, we’ll grant that these researchers need commending.

In the principal stage, they noted that the Sun’s light destroys carbon dioxide in the atmospheres of planets, leaving behind carbon monoxide. They thereby posited that Venus should have way higher levels of carbon monoxide than it actually does.

Upon further observation, the researchers found that the planet’s surrounding meteoric material (space dust) was essentially stifling the production of toxic gas, in the same way that a catalytic convertor does.

From there, they were able to create their own iron silicate powder with similar characteristics. According to the group, this proved effective in speeding up the conversion of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide – a far less dangerous gas – and succeeded in converting toxic nitrous oxide into harmless molecular nitrogen.

This represented a huge victory, considering that nitrogen oxide continues to exceed legal limits in many major cities causing respiratory issues and death. It goes without saying then, that across the board, today’s overall standard for exhausts just doesn’t cut it.

So, what immediate and long-term improvements could these converters have if they broke out at scale?


Immediate and long-term impact

The argument that fossil fuels need phasing out completely is one that we’re right on board with, despite the lack of detail on the matter in the COP27 bill. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t devise more immediate solutions though.

Waiting until 2030, when the sale of new diesel and petrol cars will theoretically be outlawed, isn’t good enough. The high carbon cost of manufacturing electric vehicles today is also a concern.

For current cars that do have catalytic convertors installed, they will typically smother toxic gas at temperatures of above 150 degrees. This means whilst they’re pootling along in traffic, pollution will continue to accumulate.

The prototype converter, on the other hand, continues to transform nitrogen oxide into molecular nitrogen at room temperature. In the context of an entire city, this would make an enormous difference in bringing toxic air levels down.

In the long term, when fossil fuels are hopefully completely redundant, hydrogen will no doubt play a huge part in our energy demands. But, did you know that high-level combustion with hydrogen converts molecular nitrogen in the air into – you guessed it – nitrogen oxide?

Therefore, iterations of this converter in several different forms will likely be important when it comes to preventing toxins from escaping into the atmosphere.

‘That’s why we’re excited to be developing a prototype emissions converter that can work in most situations – with the potential to radically reduce toxic emissions from combustion engines and other sources in the future,’ says team leader and atmospheric chemistry researcher Alexander James.

Given these revelations were made last summer, we’re excited to see how prototypes break out in the next year.