"My father was a master mechanic; I grew up with a screwdriver in one hand and a pair of pliers in the other."
Many science fiction authors of the late twentieth century are obsessed with cleaning things up. The air and the water, for instance.
This kind of filter reminds me of Maxwell's demon, an amusing thought experiment by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), who revolutionized electromagnetism. The idea is that the demon operated a sort of gateway; put him at the boundary between two rooms and he could sort the fastest moving molecules into one room and the slowest moving into another. Voila! One room is hot and the other is cold, all without expending any energy. Stephenson's device could work, though; he doesn't say anything about it not requiring any energy to operate.
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