How TU/ecomotive is getting the United States to think about sustainable road transportation

October 25, 2022

TU Eindhoven students drive 16,000 kilometers across America to deliver their sustainable message.

Team members pose after an interview in New York. Photo: TU/ecomotive

The TU/ecomotive student team has developed a car, ZEM, with an almost entirely carbon-neutral life cycle over its lifetime. The students undertook a tour of the United States to put their invention in the spotlight, bringing it to the attention of millions of people. "Look what we managed to do in a year with a relatively small group of students."

What do you say to Queen Máxima when, according to strict protocol, you are allowed four minutes of conversation with her? “Hi, I'm Nikki,” is Nikki Okkels' logical opening gambit. Nikki is standing with other members of the TU/ecomotive student team in the parking lot of Stanford University in California when the queen, with ministers Robbert Dijkgraaf and Ernst Kuipers and state secretary Vivianne Heijnen in her wake, comes over for a chat. ZEM, the sustainable car that it’s all about, had not yet arrived in America by then. Shipping delay.

“Something like that goes by very quickly,” says Nikki, reflecting on that meeting in early September. The queen, in the US for a state visit, nods approvingly as the students explain that, thanks to a special filter, ZEM captures more CO₂ than it emits while driving. After a few minutes, a photo opportunity follows. “Actually, I would like to see the car in real life,” says Máxima. “You can always drop by TU Eindhoven,” suggests team manager Louise de Laat. That invitation still stands.

Máxima in conversation with TU/ecomotive. Photo: TU/ecomotive

Inspiration Tour

Queen Máxima is not the only one in the United States interested in ZEM, which stands for Zero Emission Mobility. The sustainable car is a hit during a seven-week tour of America, where the team visits and inspires universities, partners and the business community. From New York to Austin and from Silicon Valley to Columbus, the students are making themselves heard all over the US. At the end of the trip, the odometer stands at a staggering 16,000 kilometers.

The media is also stirring. The New York Times states that TU/ecomotive is leading the way, so far leaving behind major automakers such as BMW. CNN calls it an important first step, although the amount of CO2 that can be captured is still limited. Reuters speaks of a carbon-eating electric vehicle.

ZEM - the zero emissions car that actually captures CO₂ from the air as it drives

TU/ecomotive has developed a sustainable electric passenger car that captures more carbon dioxide (CO₂) than it emits while driving. This is a prototype called ZEM, which purifies the air through a special filter. By storing the captured CO₂, ZEM can help reduce global warming. The students will improve the vehicle even further, with the goal of eventually making the entire life cycle of the car CO₂-neutral.

About ZEM.

Through the media, the team attracts the attention of millions of people in the United States. And this is exactly what the team was hoping for - to show how people can contribute to a CO₂-neutral future. “Making an impact,” is how team member Jens Lahaije sums up the mission. “We want to make people think and become inspired. Look what we managed to do in a year with a relatively small group of students (35 in total, ed.). We designed, developed and built a sustainable car. If we can do this, then business can also do more to reduce the world’s carbon footprint. That’s what we wanted to convey, and I think we’ve succeeded in doing this.”

When asked what impressed him most, a surprising answer follows. Where you might expect conversations with important business leaders or enthusiasts at universities to be the most memorable, Jens mentions visiting poor communities in Rio Linda, Greenfield and Gonzales. Among other things, the team visited a foundation that provides after-school care for poor children.

Jens calls visiting poor children the most impressive meeting. Photo: Coast to Coast

Mission accomplished

Hundreds of children poured over the car and the technology that TU/ecomotive tried to convey in plain language. The enthusiasm was terrific. Jens: “These children had never seen anything like this before; they simply don’t come into contact with new, technological developments. Then you hear a child exclaim: ‘I want to do that later too!’ That is simply wonderful. Just imagine that one or two children later become engineers because of us, then our mission has succeeded, right?”

Jens tells his story during a meeting at Ohio State University, where four team members visit the Center for Automotive Research and engage with other engineers. Interest is high; the classroom where team members Rien Beckers and Lars Holster’s presentation takes place is bulging. Afterwards, the Q&A session runs late, indicating that the American students were very attentive listeners.

“A fine audience,” Rien concludes. "We get a lot of technical questions here; after all, the room is full of students with technical backgrounds. That variety is really enjoyable; sometimes you talk to engineers, other times to entrepreneurs, students, the media or even children. We appeal to all walks of life, you could say.”

Then you hear a child exclaim: ‘I want to do that later too!’ That is simply wonderful. Just imagine that one or two children later become engineers because of us, then our mission has succeeded, right?

Just beforehand, the team is given a guided tour, because in Ohio they also work on the principle of Challenge-Based Learning. Several student teams are active. Jennifer Nash Humphrey, the event manager providing the guided tour, recalls how years ago the TU/e student team Storm had been a guest there, swapping experiences with American students. And look, in Ohio a group of students is currently working on the further development of an electric motor. “Nice to see how students from the Netherlands and the United States have inspired each other in this way,” she says.

Scaling up

Back to the classroom, where one of the most frequently asked questions of this trip rolls across the table: is the project scalable, and if so, are there plans to produce ZEM on a large scale? The answer: yes, there are plans to establish a spin-off, but that doesn’t mean the car will be copied 1-to-1, as team member Jia Ming explains later.

Ohio State University students take a closer look at ZEM. Photo: TU/ecomotive

Jia: “We got the car to be so sustainable through different technologies. Think of the solar panels, the recyclable carbon, the 3D printed elements and the CO2 capture mechanism.” The students have incorporated these technologies into a sporty-looking car, but it is also possible that the business community may be interested in one of these technologies. For example, the future spin-off wants to focus on the CO2 capture mechanism. “For us it is not so much about the car as a whole, but rather about showing what is possible to reduce the carbon footprint, through different techniques,” Jia says.

The team wanted to think out-of-the-box and not be hampered by rules. It is one of the reasons the car was not submitted to RDW inspection, explains another team member, Luka Fieten. “We are basically making a car for the future, and you can’t do that if you have to follow the rules of today. That’s why an RDW inspection would hinder us too much, because we would be stuck with the rules that are in place now. You can’t set a car of the future against contemporary standards.”

That’s why an RDW inspection would hinder us too much, because we would be stuck with the rules that are in place now. You can’t set a car of the future against contemporary standards.

On the last day of the tour, an appointment with the famous magazine The New Yorker is scheduled. The location is the Greenwich Polo Club, where the fleet of cars is worth tens of millions; Lamborghinis and Ferraris stand side by side. Here too, in a place where car enthusiasts huddle together and diesel takes precedence over sustainable, people express their appreciation for ZEM. “Did you guys make this car yourselves? Really? These young students?” asks a passerby in surprise. “I’m still old school, love the sound of a roaring diesel engine, but this is an impressive project. You guys are doing good things!”

This kind of reaction is exactly what TU/ecomotive was hoping for. Especially in conservative America, where electric and sustainable driving is still far from being embraced, it is significant that the Eindhoven students are getting mostly positive reactions to their invention, with the odd exception.

And that's not the only gain. Students also learn a tremendous amount on a personal level, says Iwan Bloksma. “I dare say I learned more in my year on the student team than in four years of study. You apply technology very concretely, so you bring everything you’ve learned to practice. You also learn a lot of soft skills, like communicating, presenting and networking. As a team we actually functioned like a small company.” Then, laughing, “But a company with a student-like atmosphere.”

Iwan: “I also met a lot of people during the tour who give you different insights, explain how things run in the business world, or could be important for your network in the future. For example, I got a LinkedIn request from a secretary of state. So, I was able to get a lot out of this trip for my own future as well.”

Now is the time for the team to resume their studies and pass the baton to the next bunch. That will take some time, according to Iwan. “It’s quite a transition after such a bizarre adventure, but it will be fine. We can be proud of what we have all accomplished together.”

Media contact

Frans Raaijmakers
(Science Information Officer)

More on Sustainability

Latest news

Keep following us