We Need More Wizards

Julio Friedmann

This guest blog by Julio Friedmann, CEO of Carbon Wrangler LLC, is part of an ongoing series on CarbonTech.

I misspent a large fraction of my youth playing Dungeons and Dragons and re-reading “Lord of the Rings”. Gary Gygax and J.R.R. Tolkein owe me money.

In my defense, my adolescent brain was ensorcelled by the idea of wizards. Magic bent the laws of physics and allowed creation out of thin air. Magic could hurtle energy and transmute matter. Magic was learned through reading and discipline, which has inherent nerd appeal. Like Dr. Strange, Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme, one could become a superhero through study alone.

Not surprisingly, when I arrived at MIT, I felt that I had finally found my people.

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I invoke wizards as a nod to Charles Mann’s new book, “The Wizard and the Prophet”. It focuses on two people who represent (and practiced) two responses to the same key question:

Given the physical limits of the earth, what is needed to create a sustainable world?

The book explores Norman Borlaug (the Wizard who created the Green Revolution that fed the world) and William Vogt (the Prophet who created the foundations of the modern environmental movement). Both suffered great adversity, and both found a personal, vibrant path to their sustainability worldview.

To simplify Mann’s conclusions, Wizards respond to the key question as a challenge, surmountable through innovation and engineering. Prophets respond as a mission, surmountable through limitation and social engineering. Both world views are valid and both approaches share the same goal – a sustainable world. They value nature and seek to balance human needs and the needs of our planetary ecosystem.

I found one of the book’s key insights both startling and obvious: practitioners of these approaches often hate each other (this was true of Borlaug & Vogt). Intense dislike, even contempt, springs from disagreement in mission and lack of trust. Just one example: nuclear power. Wizards believe nuclear power brings high-volume, carbon-free power to the world. Prophets believe it brings waste, risk, and local environmental destruction.

Wizards often consider Prophets to be naïve and innumerate. Prophets often consider Wizards to be hubristic and foolhardy.

Personally, I like to put this aside and focus on Good Wizardry. At its best, it creates something new and seemingly impossible that solves key problems. Good Wizardry can leapfrog the present and deliver remarkable improvements through innovation. In Borlaug’s case, he created dwarf wheat, which dramatically increased farm yields.

This is particularly true for clean energy technologies (Cleantech). One company, NET Power, appears to have done just that. They’ve created a new kind of natural gas power plant that does these things:

  • Makes power on demand with very high efficiency.
  • Can fully zero out CO2 emissions with CCS at no extra cost.
  • Produces fresh water as a by-product of operation (and by-product argon, oxygen, and nitrogen for sale)
  • Has a tiny physical footprint.

You can learn more about NET Power here and here (full disclosure – I just joined the NET Power team as an advisor).

Another group of Wizards pursues an equally audacious goal: turn CO2 into money. More accurately, they seek to turn CO2 into products for sale. These can be fuels, cement and concrete, or other materials (see blog 4). They are supported in their quest by another set of Wizards: the XPrize, the people who brought you SpaceX.

The XPrize (and their partners, NRG and COSIA), wanted a competition to stimulate innovation in carbon-to-value (or CarbonTech). They created the Carbon XPrize, laid out the rules, and gave drams of money to contestant innovators. To make the competition fair and stimulate commercialization, they also built two new testbed and innovation platforms, the Wyoming Integrated Test Center (ITC) and the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Center (ACCTC). Supported by industry, the Govt. of Japan, the Province of Alberta, and the State of Wyoming, these platforms have become like Hogwarts, a training site for young Wizards in their goal.

Like the alchemists of old, they’re turning waste into cash and lead into gold (note: successful alchemy is a great business model and often yields unexpected benefits. The alchemists of old didn’t succeed at this, but did create the field of Chemistry).

Ultimately, achievements in Wizardry don’t appear from thin air. They need more people and companies getting more money and support. Congress seems to agree. The 2018 Omnibus bill help major funding increases to the Dept. of Energy, including the Office of Science, Office of Nuclear Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the Office of Fossil Energy, and ARPA-E (the free-range innovation arm of the DOE). Altogether, that’s an additional $2.5 billion new dollars to support clean energy and science development – a down payment that will help build an edifice of knowledge and innovation for a generation.

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In interviews, Mann states that he hopes his book might prompt closer cooperation and efforts between the two tribes, Wizards and Prophets.

Amen. Although I consider myself a solid Wizard (for the record: Ravenclaw), I find great merit in the work of Prophets and have gladly worked with many from that tribe. To make deep and lasting progress on climate, Prophets and Wizards can and should work together and value each other.

Still, I find innovation in energy and environmental technology indispensable. It provides options to the central of challenge of global warming and climate change. Option reduces costs and pain, increases the likelihood of success, and creates economic growth. The more options, the better.

  • You think eating too much meat trashes the environment? Let’s intensify agriculture and use ¼ the land and water.
  • Still think so? Let’s invent really cheap and delicious synthetic meats.
  • Too much plastic in the ocean? Let’s cultivate microbes and devices that break it down into fish food.
  • Too much CO2 in the air? Let’s create options that harvest carbon from the air and oceans.

The last one is a personal favorite (see blogs 3 & 5). I find it noteworthy that we can (and should) include options using natural systems (like forests and soils). I also believe we should innovate there as well. Tinker with how we manage forests and harvest them, and how we turn wood into building materials, fuel, and power. Tinker with soil microbes to let them store more carbon and increase farm yields (note: this is the opposite of what organic farming often does). Tinker with trees themselves, increasing growth rates and root length to bury more carbon underground.

We also need to invent and improve devices that pull CO2 from the air and oceans directly. When it comes to harvesting carbon, the ones in the market today are 2000-8000 times more efficient than trees! They use almost no land, and some produce fresh water. Sure, they got problems (like using lots of clean energy), but most of those problems can be fixed.

In the end, I’m sympathetic to the call of the Prophet, but believe that more options reduce cost and risk and make the politics easier. We need more Wizards – let’s cultivate and support them.