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Texas A&M researchers say they can grow food from materials captured from car exhaust

Published: Sep. 21, 2021 at 12:43 AM CDT
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - Researchers at Texas A&M say they can use water and carbon dioxide captured from car exhaust to grow food.

While this research is very much still in the conceptual stages, Texas A&M petroleum engineering professor Maria Barrufet says it’s doable based on simulations and analysis. She says all the processes to make it possible exist, but on a humongous scale. It’s just a matter of scaling them down.

“When we use gasoline, about 30% of the energy is wasted or lost in the exhaust,” Barrufet said. “The temperatures are pretty high in there, so the idea is using those temperatures to power an Organic Rankine Cycle. That’s essentially a heat pump, and it would be operating pieces of equipment.”

Barrufet says people could put a cartridge over the exhaust pipes of their cars that collects the exhaust which could later be used to grow every day produce items. Theoretically, people could turn in the cartridges to a plant that can use it. Those cartridges, depending on how they’re manufactured after more research is done to determine an optimal size, could fill up about as often as it takes to go through a full tank of gas.

“Basically, for every kilogram of produce, let’s say potatoes or tomatoes, you need 2.7 kilograms of CO2. That’s quite a bit,” Barrufet said. “They use a lot in those urban greenhouses.”

This process would help reduce carbon emissions on two separate fronts.

“Basically, you have billions of cars, and they all emit CO2,” Barrufet said. “That would be targeting that aspect, and the other aspect would be, of course, in the agricultural sector, in farming and in the greenhouses. They also use quite a bit.”

There are a number of aspects related to the project that present big question marks. For example, what’s the best way to store the captured exhaust? How much would the cartridges attached to the car’s exhaust pipe affect its performance? Barrufet says if the cartridges require the car to use more energy or gas, it defeats the purpose, as the downsides to using one should be minimal, if any exist at all.

Barrufet says assembling a large enough team to make this possible won’t be a simple task, either. It’s going to take people from a number of different industries. She thinks the government should get involved in sponsoring incentives to encourage the necessary actors to get involved in a project she says would ultimately benefit society.

“To get this going, it’s an interdisciplinary project. All the components exist in large scales. They have to be integrated. We have to be in sync,” Barrufet said. “Just working on one single aspect is not enough. There’s a lot of people who need to get involved.”

Barrufet and her team of researchers are currently looking for funding to do more of this formal research. They believe this could be put into practice to grow food in about a decade or so.

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