Design Worth a Damn: Pulling compounds from the atmosphere

Pardon my hiatus. I’ve been doing some soul-searching lately to figure out why I’m working to create content to begin with – also balancing some health issues. I’ve decided to refocus this blog a bit, to hone in on the things that matter most to me: exploring the world through food and design. 

At my workplace, and in the larger entrepreneurial ecosystem, there is often talk of whether or not a startup or business has “social impact.” Some people draw a thick line between social entrepreneurs and others. Others — like me — feel firmly that a good business or a good design should inherently be beneficial to the world, as well as self-sustaining and viable as a business. Maybe that’s too tall an order, but I think that wicked challenges produce good results.

I also think that there are two kinds of excellent entrepreneurial solutions: the kind that solve a problem we have right now, delight the customer, and make them say “finally someone saw my problem and offered a solution that works for me!”, and the kind that both recognize and solve a problem that isn’t affecting us yet… but will.

I have the privilege to work with startups of all kinds, including researchers who are putting in the work to determine if their lab-based technology should become some kind of product or service. These people often see and try to solve “future problems.” Given the time it takes to develop technology in the lab, it’s lucky for all of us that some folks are trying to get a jump on these future problems – we would be in a bad spot if we had to wait until the problem occurred to begin working on a solution.

One of my recent fascinations has been with technologies that “pull stuff” from the atmosphere around us. Recurring themes are water and CO2; water because we need it, and CO2 because we’d like to remove it from our atmosphere.

I became interested in these technologies afterI had the pleasure of meeting the team from Global Thermostat – one of several carbon capture companies blossoming forth onto the market. I was captivated by the clarity of the problem they’re addressing: we don’t want CO2 in our atmosphere, but we do want it in a lot of places where it isn’t: greenhouses, manufacturing, fuels. Liquifying and transporting CO2 has shaped the market and made it difficult for some to procure what they need (such as for greenhouses in remote and/or impoverished regions). Companies like Global Thermostat are aiming to disrupt this market — and improve the atmosphere around the world — by pulling CO2 out on site for use where it is needed.

Today I read about a similar effort that I believe is equally important: pulling water. Whether or not people realize it — in the midst of political upheaval, climate change denial, and peak oil worries — access to potable water is one of the most significant issues we will face within our lifetimes. There are things we can weather as a global population (regardless of how unpleasant they are) using human ingenuity: an unstable climate, rapidly changing ecosystems, lack of oil. There are things we cannot weather: no drinking water.

At SXSWeco last year, I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop around speculative design for energy and water as a “linked system,” run by GE’s Digital Solutions fab crew, including Phil Balagtas of Speculative Futures. They outlined a compelling argument: water is at the root of our food, manufacturing, energy, and infrastructure. We need it, and yet we need to also be wary of using potable water for purposes other than consumption. Water and energy production are also inextricably linked, in more ways than we realize. GE is taking a special interest in this critical link between water and energy with some of their speculative design projects.

Side note: I highly recommend “The Water Knife,” by Paolo Bacigalupi. In the realm of speculative fiction that illuminates real issues, it’s a winner. 

Enter the MOF (metal-organic framework) being explored at Evelyn Yang of MIT, researchers UC Berkeley, and other institutions. This admittedly adorable little box pulls water from the atmosphere. There is a lot of testing to be done, and the technology isn’t yet “scaled up,” but I’m intrigued for sure. How about you?

A prototype MOF device. Photo by Evelyn Yang, MIT.

What other critical issues do you think we face? How do you see design addressing these issues? I’m also very interested in controlled environment agriculture, especially vertical farming – and I see that as clearly tied to both the above technologies.

Leave me a comment and let’s chat.