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Teen serial inventor returns with pollution filter to clear city skies

(CNN) Angad Daryani. Remember the name.

The 19-year-old from Mumbai has already gained a reputation. He left school in the ninth grade and then self-educated while working with MIT Media Lab until the age of 17. Daryani has launched multiple startups and social initiatives, and collaborated on a string of inventions that fall squarely into the "Why hasn't someone thought of that before?" category.

There was the "eye-pad," designed to instantly convert written English and French into Braille. The Sharkbot, a $350 3-D printer. A low-cost ECG heart monitor and a vehicle controlled by hand gestures.

Now, Daryani is pushing forward with an industrial-scale air filter to rid skies of pollutants and carcinogens that plague modern cities.

"Growing up, I had asthma," he explained. "I used to have a lot of breathing problems growing up in India."

The World Health Organization estimates that India has 15 million to 20 million asthmatics, the condition affecting roughly 10% to 15% of 5- to 11-year-olds.

Air quality has been a longstanding issue. India is the world's third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, according to Global Carbon Atlas, and an economic boom is putting more cars on the streets. Garbage fires, crop burning and road dust also contribute to air pollution. During one bad period of smog in New Delhi in late 2017, breathing outdoors was equivalent to smoking 44 cigarettes a day.

The problem is not going to vanish overnight. In 2016, a report by the International Energy Agency estimated that car ownership in the world's second most populous nation would jump 775% by 2040. With the government announcing a $2.5 billion scheme to electrify every household in the country, demands on energy -- over half currently coming from coal -- are only going to rise.

Large-scale air filtration has entered the public imagination in recent years. A pagoda-esque "Smog Free Tower" popped up in Beijing in 2016 and the "CityTree" in Paris in 2017. But the technology has yet to take off at scale.

Daryani is a frequent public speaker. One day, he was sharing the stage with someone who spoke about air filters. But Daryani says that when he approached him about bringing the technology to India, the other speaker rebuffed him. "That really upset me," Daryani said, "so I said, 'OK, I'm going to take this up myself and solve this problem on my own.' "

Carbon particles collected from the air.

Now an undergraduate at the Georgia Institute of Technology, he shows CNN a small-scale version of his solution in a university workshop. He's working toward a 20-foot cylindrical tower that sucks in air, separating pollutants in a five-phase process. He says his method adapts and shrinks techniques used by the energy sector and gas-emitting industries.

"There's two things that we want to separate: One is dust and other heavy solid particles in the air, and second is microscopic carbon particles, which are actually causing lung cancer," he explained.

Using replaceable filters like household air purifiers is not an option, Daryani says: They'd need to be replaced every day in the city. His system will instead contain two tanks for collecting dust and carbon, which he estimates would need emptying only every one to two weeks.

Carbon stripped from the air is potentially profitable, too. Indian startup Graviky Labs is creating ink from particles emitted by car exhausts. "If we're capturing that same amount of carbon and the same quality of carbon through our technology, we can obviously pass (it) on," Daryani said.

The teen has made sacrifices to get here, shutting down his startups in India to pursue university and the project. Daryani says his tutor is allowing the pollution filter to count toward his electrical engineering course credits, but he's looking beyond that.

"If this tower performs the way that we want it to perform, we can scale it up in the thousands in the city in the next five or six years."

He cites Elon Musk, a clear inspiration for the type of business model he wants to construct: an entrepreneur whose ambitions the world can barely keep up with.

"I want things like this (tower) to be implemented on a scale until the time developing countries like India, China and (countries in) Africa actually reach an all-electric method of transportation," Daryani said.

"My eventual dream is to build companies that solve problems like this. That's what I tried to do before, and that's what I hope to do after school."