Air-Synth is a new open source initiative that aims to rapidly develop, democratize and evolve technology that can electroreduce CO2 from the air into ethanol or other materials that can be used in products and processes, such as 3D printing. The current prototype, developed by a team led by inventor Anirudh Sharma, uses a copper-based catalyst in a membrane electrode assembly (MEA) integrated with a zero-gap electrolyser.
In this discussion, filmed during COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, Anirudh joins other members of OpenAir’s AirSynth team to discuss project origins and goals, and their plans to build a global network of university-based clubs to accelerate breakthroughs and advancements.
- Anirudh Sharma, OpenAir - Discord: @zwanderer
- Alexander Ose, OpenAr - Discord: @alexose
- Michael DeMaesschalck, OpenAir - Discord: @Mike D
Moderated by Chris Neidl, OpenAir - Discord: @Neidl_c
This conversation is background for a call to action for innovative direct air capture of CO2 (DAC). The Air-Synth process device being discussed was developed by Anirhud at Gravity Labs. Ani has background in electrical engineering and industrial design. His background in open-source efforts like software development and now some aspects of biology came from a development he made with arduino/lilypad. He wants to make CDR/DAC accessible to makers.
Lab facilities are expensive and the initial efforts in CDR involved complex and potentially dangerous conditions, but electochemistry processes may make CDR more accessible to amateur experimenters. The Air-Synth emulates photosynthesis - atmospheric CO2 and water vapor are combined with electrical energy to synthesize organic compounds. The electrochemical reaction occurs in the presence of a catalyst and membrane.
The development of the project to date has been low-budget - a cooperative venture of makers and inventors. The hope is to develop an open-source version that can be available to further experimentation.
Alex, with a software background and working with OA was involved in project Violet and went through some similar thought processes as Ani. He recognizes that although more work is being done on sorption, electrochemical conversion holds great potential. Although some catalysts can be expensive, it isn’t necessarily so.
Mike, who is newer to OA, has background in chemistry. He sees Air-Synth as a great tool for introducing the concept of DAC to students. There are very many people hungry for ways to get involved in climate and environmental projects. There is enthusiasm for democratizing technology and moving DAC out of the lab.
Chris thinks there are very many people in many universities who are interested. They can drive great change if they have access to starter-ideas. This project is DAC which means removing carbon from the ambient air - it is distinct from carbon capture at emission sources.
Ani wants to get the Air-Synth beyond prototype; the performance of the technology must be validated. He has developed a microcontroller for the device that can enable many different kinds of experimental operations and modes, but he needs help to test efficiency, catalyst life, and other aspects of the technology. He seeks support for testing and analysis - maybe there are university teams that will have access to laboratory analytical equipment. Measuring performance of a device like this requires high precision equipment, not available in the average garage.
Chris, considering the solar cell on the unit observes that sometimes producing a simple and inexpensive module opens the gates of social creativity. Imaginations are triggered and democratized technology gives rise to unpredictable developments. Alex observes that Node.js is an example of this - an open source tool has evolved into a widely used standard. Chris mentions that Github evolved in this way from a software repository to a platform for all kinds of open source collaborations.
How does open source collaboration work? Why is it successful. Nobody is working for money in these projects - they are driven by personal interest, desire for challenge, and the achievement of personal gratification. Sometimes people just need to see something work for themselves.
Ani says that once people can work with an Air-Synth device, there are a hundred new problems to resolve - how to make it lighter and thinner, how easier to manufacture, what better catalyst choices might be made?
Sometimes the talents of the participants dictate the direction a project evolves, so OA encourages anyone to get involved regardless of background - all are welcome. Maybe by COP28 there will be teams working on Air-Synth units in various universities and many makers will be tinkering in their garages. OA will help to publicize the idea - that it can be possible to synthesize chemicals from thin air. Ani hopes to operate one in a desert somewhere and see useful substances being made with nothing more than the sun and components of air. Amazing.