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Working on Problems Worth Solving

Updated: Jul 3

energy freedom around the world.

Manu Pillai’s ancestral homeland is in the southern state of Kerala, India where the people have long adapted to flooding and monsoons. “You can see it in the way the homes are designed,” he says. “You always step up into them, which creates a water barrier.”

It was his first visit to Kerala in twenty years when he noticed that “the backwaters, which were normally not that different from sea level, were rising. You could see the bathtub rings. And you could see the sandbags, which I had not seen there before.”

He looked into the data to investigate the causes of the imposing water. He realized that the days had become hotter and were baking the earth, hardening the surfaces and preventing the effective absorption of water from the monsoons. At the same time, overall sea level was rising.

“It was a very clear reminder that there’s a climate problem. And so that’s when I started thinking about what to do.”

A Solution that Promotes Energy Equity, Doesn’t Exacerbate Climate Change, and Funds Itself

“Energy is freedom, so any attempts to constrain access to energy becomes a problem. If you want to actually avoid climate disaster, the reality is that you need to build nuclear power as fast as possible. But the majority of countries that need the energy are not part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group which means they do not have access to nuclear power. So either you have to fix that, or you have to provide alternates. But simply jumping on an oil barrel and saying ‘Thou shalt not use oil’” is to perpetuate colonialism and inequality around the world.

When you look at today's climate crisis, it is the result of the energy policies and practices of less than 1 billion people. The energy consumption in the United States is 88,000 kilowatt hours per year, roughly, and in India it’s less than 8,000.

“What do you expect to happen when the next 4 billion people's standard of living, which is mapped by energy, goes up from an average of less 10,000 kilowatt hours to 50,000, a reasonable standard of living, and where many other countries are?

“I thought, if that happens, if you think we have a global warming problem now, you haven't seen anything yet. So the real issue is, how do you provide a standard of living that's worth living for, for the other billions? And how do you mitigate the problems we already have?

“You have to build a technology platform that can scale wide. And be deployed fast, faster than the rate of growth of the economies, otherwise, it won’t take market share. Which also means you have to build a company that does not depend on charity, because the rate of charitable contributions will always be lower than the rate of economic growth.

“We had to design a company that fought climate change, provided energy, and could fund itself faster than anything else.” As Manu thought about the problem he began to consider how leveraging biomass could meet these criteria.

The Benefits OF BIOMASS

“Biomass is all derived at some point in time from plant matter. Plant matter is a result of photosynthesis. So if you're playing with photosynthesis, plants are pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, right? They are a direct air capture machine. They don't consume your money and actually give you something back in return.

“I figured if I focused on biomass, I would have the world's lowest cost direct air capture system basically pulling in carbon dioxide from the air nonstop and giving it to us in solid matter that is mostly carbon. Then if we could use that, we would be constantly pulling from the air.

“How can we convert biomass into viable local energy? If you can build energy locally, you don’t need a pipeline, you don’t need a refinery, you don’t need a tanker truck. You can displace all of those.

“If you take biomass, you can produce methane as a gas and use that for energy. And the way that you fund that is to use biomass to create valuable chemicals.

Biomass is full of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. With these four elements, and maybe a few others, you can do a lot of interesting things if you have the ability to build the molecules that you want. And so the question is, how do we get them?

“The entire company is really playing with being a molecular kitchen, which is ambitious for me as an electrical engineer, not a chemical engineer. But that’s basically it. Leverage the energy that’s available in biomass for immediate, local energy needs, and then turn around and use the raw materials that result to create value added products to fund the machine.

“Everything we produce is renewable. Biomass sources all started from the sun. And there’s no fossils harmed in the production of these gasses.”

The World is an Awesome Place

“I don’t expect everyone to go backwards in terms of standard of living. I don’t expect you to rent a horse to come from New York to California, get on a damn plane and get here.

But what I do aspire to is collaboration and intention to improve other people’s standard of living. I think that’s what the majority of people want, that I know anyway. We believe that having more people around you who are well off and happy is good for you, too.

“I fundamentally believe in people. I think the world is an awesome place. People are trying to make a difference. Aarati [Sykom's founder] as just been fantastic. There’s so many people who are there. So we’re not alone.

“My father once told me that you only have a problem if you have a choice. And I’m not sure I have a choice.” Through this lens, the climate crisis “is only a problem if you had to choose between this problem and that problem, but since this is a really big one, there's not much to do about it other than to do something about it.”

Portable Energy: Manu’s Vision for the Future

“I always run into people who tell me ‘Well, you know, the climate is supposed to change.’ My response is, ‘you better hope it is human caused and controllable, because if it's not, we're in a deep load of trouble.

“10 years from now, I want to be able to walk into a Home Depot type place and buy a suitcase that you take home, put your trash in, and it generates energy for you. And every once in a while drops out something at the bottom that you can take back to Home Depot and exchange for cash, some value added product that comes out.

“I don't know what that is yet because it has to be safe to be dropped out at home. It can't be a carcinogenic or poisonous gas.

“I want CarbonBridge to be the portable energy solution that can work from homes to large factories. I think of the last scene of Back to the Future where the Doc opens up the trunk and tosses in banana peels. Let’s get there.”

Learn more about CarbonBridge's science and team by visiting their website.

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