#25: MIT Clean Energy Prize winners



Josh McEnaney
Nico Pinkowski
Brian Rohr
Jay Schwalbe
Harmony Desal:
Grace Connors
Sahil Shah
Quantum Wei



Our goal is to have all this funding go immediately to having a company in climate impact. That means getting hardware in the soil, connected to solar panels, and making fertilizer, decarbonizing fertilizer production in the valley. We’re going to be driving up and down California Central Valley and trying to use this funding in a productive way to decarbonize this industry and get going.

Frank O’Sullivan: Welcome to the podcast. I’m Frank O’Sullivan, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School. It’s a real pleasure to have you all with us here today for a special episode focused on the MIT Clean Energy Prize and specifically the two teams that this year walked away with the grand prize and the runner up prize. Those are Nitricity and Harmony Desal.

Throughout the episode we’re going to spend some time speaking with the guys and girls on both teams, learning a little bit about how they’ve came to create their entities, what they’re all about, what’s the technology, and what’s the future going to hold. The Clean Energy Prize itself, one of those remarkable entities that has emerged over the past decade or longer here at MIT, to support addressing the global challenge of innovation—technology innovation, market and commercial innovation—to drive towards solutions to the climate and energy challenges that the world in facing in the 21st century. As with many of the great things about MIT, a fully student-driven, student-led process that has resulted in an alumni of startups that have raised over a billion dollars in funding. The prize itself has delivered nearly $3 million in non-diluted funding and support to prize winners over the years, and has led to the mentorship of over 220 startup finalists who have benefited from the guidance of Clean Energy Prize mentors and the deep, deep network that participation in the prize has provided for them.

With that, let’s turn to our two teams. We’re going to begin chatting with the Harmony Desal team. I’d like to turn to the Harmony group now, have them introduce themselves.

Quantum Wei: I’m Quantum Wei, I’m a PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and I work in the Lienhard Research Group.

Sahil Shah: My name is Sahil Sha and I’m also a PhD Mechanical Engineering student, working with the Global Engineering and Research Lab.

Grace Connors: My name is Grace Connors and I’m a Masters student in Mechanical Engineering at MIT and I also work in the Global Engineering and Research Lab.

FO: As I mentioned in my opening remarks, Harmony Desal are a fantastic group of young MIT students focused on really bringing a very, very innovative new approach to reverse osmosis to the market. They were the runners-up in this year’s Clean Energy Prize and we’re looking forward to being able to spend the next 20 or 30 minutes speaking with them, learning a little bit more about the team, how they came to focus on this problem, what’s innovative about the solutions that they’re developing, and what’s the plan going forward. With that, welcome to the podcast, guys.

GC: Thanks so much for having us.

SS: Thanks.

FO: Since we’re all virtual here, we’re all working hard to make this work. I think our listeners can appreciate that. Look, guys, it’s really great to have you joining us here. Really great to see you guys do so well in this year’s Clean Energy Prize. What you’re doing with respect to trying to move the frontier on the effectiveness and efficiency of desal, it’s really, really exciting. I think it would be great for us to kick off to learn a little bit more about how you three have come together to create Harmony and a little bit about how this story has really started.

QW: At Harmony Desal, we’re really coming together around the technology of batch reverse osmosis. Batch reverse osmosis is a process innovation. It’s a technology that’s been developed in my lab group, the Lienhard Research Group. I started working on it three summers ago, summer of 2017. It was about a little over a year ago, I went to a conference, the Membrane Technology Conference in New Orleans. There I was seeing that there were other technologies similar to the batch reverse osmosis technology. There were also time varying processes that were being commercialized and there was a demand for these technologies. But what I saw was that batch RO [reverse osmosis] was even better than these technologies in terms of energy consumption. That’s where the lightbulb clicked for me and I realized that we needed to get this technology out of the lab and into the market.

In the meanwhile, I’d known both Sahil and Grace. We’re all MIT students, we all work in water desalination, so it’s a pretty close-knit community. It was just this past January that we decided to team up, join the Clean Energy Prize, compete in some of these MIT pitch competitions, and really start to earnestly work on commercializing batch RO and getting it out of the lab.

FO: Quantum, I think for the audience more generally, there’s a lot of awareness out there, or at least a growing awareness, around the broader challenge of secure water supply and how that’s playing out around the world. Driven by many factors, of course climate change being an important one. Of course, people have heard about reverse osmosis, but I think people, or at least many people, may not necessarily really understand that process and the opportunities for innovation around that process. Maybe you or one of the guys can offer us a 101 on the batch methodology that you guys are applying.

SS: I can answer that question. I think most people don’t realize how prevalent seawater desalination already is. Today, the total installed seawater desalination capacity is on the order of 30 million cubic meters per day and it’s increasing by about 17% annually.

As you mentioned, Frank, the most widely used technology is reverse osmosis. What we do in reverse osmosis is we apply pressure to push water across a semipermeable membrane. The pressure that’s required is quite high when we’re looking at seawater desalination, and this results in a high energy consumption.

Now, besides building larger-scale facilities, there’s really been very little done to decrease the energy consumption of this process over the last five to 10 years. The process efficiency has kind of stagnated. Our technology breaks that trend and provides a 10% energy reduction compared to conventional RO. This might not seem like a lot, but it amounts to a pretty major savings when you consider the energy consumption and the size of these facilities.

FO: RO, obviously, there’s a huge amount of capex [capital expense] involved, but in terms of the actual economics of the business of desal today, my understanding is that the energy component is a huge driver in terms of the overall economics of the option compared to other solutions. What’s the scale that we’re talking about here? What’s the scale of an at-scale RO plant today and how much are they consuming in terms of energy on a daily basis? What’s that costing? I think it’d be great to better understand that so that we can see. As you said, whenever you say 10%, 10% in a mature process feels like an enormous step forward.

SS: We can use Carlsbad as an example. Carlsbad is a state-of-the-art desalination facility that supplies San Diego. Now, this facility, on a daily basis, uses on the order of 750 megawatt hours of electricity. It’s a pretty significant amount of electricity that the desalination facility consumes. If we look at how much money they spend on that energy, it’s on the order of about $40 million per year. A 10% energy savings, that’s $4 million that the plant saves per year.

FO: $4 million per year just to Carlsbad alone. That’s really quite a remarkable saving on the opex [operating expense] front. To seize on that opportunity and to bring your technology, to bring Harmony Desal’s batch process into the operation, what’s going to have to happen? Are you guys delivering something that’s fundamentally different in terms of the overall process structure, or is it a more drop-in or add-on type component?

SS: I think Quantum would be best to answer this question.

QW: Batch RO is a process innovation. The cool thing is we’ve got a system in the lab that uses mostly off the shelf parts. The most important part being the membrane. We’re using the same old membranes you’ll find in a regulated desalination plant. What is special about our system is we’ve got a bladder, that’s the secret sauce. That’s what allows us to vary the pressure in the system and save the energy. That bladder is the one custom-made part. Everything else is off the shelf. We could do a retrofit. We could construct a new plan with these parts.

FO: That then brings us to the commercial opportunity. There’s been this innovation at the lab level. You’ve described that, Quantum. You’ve described the scale of the impact, Sahil, that this could have. I guess the next question is, and you guys have laid this out in your Clean Energy Prize pitch, how you’re going to go after that. Maybe for the listeners, Grace, you might be able to take us through what the vision is for building Harmony Desal going forward, how you guys are addressing this growing market, this growing need, what are the next steps now that you’ve walked away with a finalist position in the Clean Energy Prize.

GC: I think our long-term goal, our ultimate vision for Harmony Desal, is to provide equipment for plants like Carlsbad. But the three of us right now probably can’t convince Carlsbad to buy equipment yet. Our path for getting there starts with pilot-scale validation tests next summer on real water. This is going to be the first time we’re taking the system out of the lab and into a testing facility. Our hope is to do that in New Mexico at the Brackish Groundwater National Laboratory that’s located out there.

Then, after that, we’re going to focus on selling equipment in the Caribbean. The Caribbean is a great market because the energy costs are really high and they already desalinate quite a bit of water. We’re planning to sell small-scale plants to resorts or hotels or people that are looking for higher-quality water than potentially offered by the municipality, or are just separated from the municipality physically, or there’s no piping to the municipality. That’s very common in the Caribbean or in island nations, typically, that you can have private water sources or private water desalination systems. Our hope is to provide those. Then that gives us the opportunity to refine our equipment design and then also get long-term plant data, which is really important as we try to pivot towards selling capital equipment to large-scale municipalities like Carlsbad. I think that’s really going to allow us to build credibility while earning a bit of recurring revenue by selling water to these facilities in the Caribbean.

FO: That makes a huge amount of sense. I think, in looking at the Caribbean, you guys obviously have found a very interesting pain point that’s going to hopefully allow the demonstration and, as you said, building this track record in terms of the operational data that’s going to be needed for larger-scale deployment, whilst, at the same time, obviously, probably delivering quite a compelling economic solution too, down there, where they have to rely on, oftentimes, oil-fired generation to drive their energy needs.

Now, with that said, it’s still a task to build a new, from-scratch tech company like this that’s heavily focused on a physical piece of capital equipment. What’s the plan for you guys with respect to raising funding, building the team, and getting on that road towards at-scale activity?

QW: We’re currently applying for funding. We’ll take all the funding we can get. There’s an internal MIT program put on by J-WAFS—that’s the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, and the Deshpande Center, they’re a center for commercialization—and they’ve got funding available exactly for what we’re trying to do. MIT students who are trying to take technologies out of the lab and into the market to try and commercialize. We’ve got a proposal. We’re waiting to hear back about that funding later this summer. The Bureau of Reclamation has a call, the Pitch to Pilot program, which is exactly for what we’re trying to do, which is pilot an innovative desalination technology out at the research facility down in New Mexico. I think a little later on down the line, we’re definitely looking into funding from the federal government, SBIRs [Small Business Innovation Research], NSF [National Science Foundation], I-Corps, all that good stuff.

FO: Of course, you guys have been in the shop window, in terms of going through the Clean Energy Prize and really coming out on top. Have you found, or has that opened up, any new conversations with potential investors, people that are looking to support the effort here? I know there’s a lot of interest in addressing the broader water challenge amongst earlier-stage technology investors at the moment. I can see the experience and the interactions that occur through the Clean Energy Prize really being an interesting mechanism for drawing out some new network for you guys to help move the effort forward as well.

QW: Yes, definitely. I think once we made it as a finalist in the Clean Energy Prize, people from the Cleantech Open—that’s a national clean tech accelerator—reached out to us. We’ve been talking to a couple of investors. I think it’s a little bit early. We’re at an early stage, we’re not quite ready to take on that kind of money, but we’ve been talking to some investors, getting our name out there, if you will.

FO: It’s very much a case of taking the momentum you’re building but at the same time, working through and leveraging the foundations that you guys have got here at MIT as you’re wrapping up with college before taking that next step?

QW: Absolutely.

SS: I think there are a lot of resources here at MIT that we can take advantage of while being students. I think those resources are ideal for the stage that we’re at right now, which primarily involves scaling up to a larger pilot. Having said that, as Quantum mentioned, I think the Clean Energy Prize was really fantastic in helping us network with people that will be able to help fund the next stage of development.

FO: On that, maybe to speak a little bit more about the Clean Energy Prize journey for you guys. Obviously, the Clean Energy Prize, its mission there is to support and bring new and innovative technologies to the world. As important as the technologies themselves are the process of really helping innovators and entrepreneurs learn and understand the next steps, et cetera, et cetera. That’s become a really important and valuable feature of the effort too.

I’m curious, just for you three, I know you’ve had quite an amount of early-stage startup experience as well. Certainly you, Grace, have an impressive resume in that respect. I’m just curious, on some of the softer side of things, how going through the process has helped shape your perspective about the next step, the skill sets that it’s added to, and maybe some reflections on what you guys think the Clean Energy Prize could do more of, actually, in helping folks like yourselves as you’re going through this process.

GC: I can answer this. I had a great call with two of our mentors. It was actually the day MIT shut down, so it was a very hectic day for me. I had a call with two of our mentors and I think Sahil and Quantum both couldn’t make it. I think it was because I had forgotten to share the calendar invite with them. I hopped on this call and I was very flustered with this whole news of Covid-19 and our labs shutting down and everything. They asked me to pitch. I was like, “I don’t feel prepared to pitch at all,” but I gave it a shot.

They were so helpful. After I pitched, we just talked about the vision for the business and how their philosophy was not to help us necessarily win money, and not to help us just win the Clean Energy Prize, but was to think about, “Are you building a sustainable business? What are the things that are going to convince someone that you’ve thought about the sustainability of the business? How are you going to earn recurring revenue? How are you going to move to capital sales?”

It really did change the way we pitched for the Clean Energy Prize. I think, initially, we were thinking about, “What we’re pitching for is $100,000 to do the next step,” but they really were like, “What we’re interested in is what do you see the business being? Is this a good investment for me 10 years from now?” I think it was really helpful to talk that through with two people who did not know very much about water desalination, as they said, but knew a lot about how to frame a good, compelling pitch, especially to clean tech investors. I thought that was extremely helpful.

I appreciated them really forcing me to pitch very unprepared. Even though I don’t think I did a very good job, it did prepare me for eventually pitching. I think that was also very helpful. I think the Clean Energy Prize does such a great job of enabling you to meet these resources. I think this year, especially, it was very difficult because of Covid-19 happening in the middle of the Clean Energy Prize, but really introducing you to people from all walks of life who can offer feedback on your presentation, and your pitch, and your business plan, I thought that was really helpful.

FO: What I can certainly say is that in speaking with you guys now, it feels like you guys have taken a lot from the prize process in terms of the compelling story that you’re telling and the excitement, actually, that I think surrounds what you guys are doing. Frankly, what you’re doing really is profoundly innovative in this particular space. I certainly encourage all of our listeners to go do a little bit more digging. The 10% performance boost, that really does matter. Knowing that, I feel really, really excited, actually, to have had this chance to speak with you. I think if we come back in a few years’ time, you guys are going to be out there really moving the needle for the overall desal space and really aiming to, or really delivering, some real impact for the water challenges that we’re facing. Which is great. Which is what the whole process is all about.

Look, guys, thank you so much for joining us. Quantum, Sahil, Grace, it’s been a pleasure. We’ve enjoyed hearing about the effort today and we look forward to following progress over the next few months and years. From all your friends here at the Energy Initiative, we wish you all the best going forward.

GC: Thank you so much.

SS: Likewise, from our end. Thank you so much.

FO: Turning now to the 2020 winners of the Clean Energy Prize, Nitricity. It’s an absolute pleasure to have you joining us all the way from California, Nico, Josh, Jay, and Brian. Welcome, guys. First, let me begin by maybe asking you each to give a little more formal introduction, who you are, what you’re doing at the moment, and so on.

Nico Pinkowski: Thank you very much for having us. It’s a great opportunity. My name is Nico Pinkowski and I’m a Mechanical Engineering PhD student at Stanford University studying thermosciences. A couple of years back, I started, as a class project, working with Brian, Jay, and Josh on how to decarbonize nitrogen fertilizer production. That’s really where this company began.

Brian Rohr: My name’s Brian Rohr. I’m just finishing up a PhD at Stanford University in the Chemical Engineering department. I came to Stanford with the hope to work on a big energy problem. I got linked up with Nico, Jay, and Josh a couple of years ago and started working on Nitricity.

Jay Schwalbe: I’m Jay Schwalbe. I’m a recent graduate from Stanford, from Matteo Cargnello’s group in the Chemical Engineering department. As the other guys have mentioned, we’ve been working for quite some time on decarbonizing fertilizer. It’s exciting to be working on Nitricity now.

Josh McEnaney: I’m Josh McEnaney. I have a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State, where I did renewable hydrogen production, electric chemical processes. Today, I’m a postdoc at Stanford doing nitrogen fixation, and then joined Nitricity and been working here ever since.

FO: I think for many of our listeners here on the podcast, when we think about energy problems or the energy challenge abroad or sustainability challenges, a lot of the focus tends to be in the generation of electricity. Of course, when we look at the grander scheme of things, we have a challenge right across the economy in terms of feedstocks and the production of feedstocks. These are large and challenging areas to address from a decarbonization point of view, whilst simultaneously also managing the fact that we have a growing economy, growing populations and so on. That’s really what’s fascinated me about what you guys are doing, what Nitricity is doing in terms of looking at creating pathways to clean, sustainable fertilizers. I’d love to start at the start, understand how this idea has come about, how you guys came together as a group, and what it is that’s really innovative and new about what you guys are currently doing.

NP: Great question. Personally, I got into this through a Stanford class project. Stanford has a really great class called Stanford Energy Ventures where students explore some of the biggest challenges in energy today. Many, as you noted, based around the generation of electricity, but many others based on using electricity and energy that goes in and is embodied in physical goods. Fertilizers is a big area for that. We worked at it as part of a class project once, and then we signed up for the class twice. That’s how I got involved in it but I think that these gentlemen have spent their whole PhDs, and Josh his whole postdoc, working on this for much longer than I got involved.

JS: I started working on ammonia at the beginning of my PhD and was soon after joined by Josh as a postdoc in Tom’s group, and then Brian as a computational student in Jens’ group. It was a part of a really big group of researchers who were tackling this huge problem with a combined computation and experimental approach. We found an awful lot of ways not to make ammonia. You can sum up much of my PhD, I think maybe Josh and Brian can attest to that.

BR: Definitely. We tried a lot of stuff that didn’t work very well. Eventually, we landed on this. It was pretty good. I came to Stanford. I was working at a tech company in Boston and decided I wanted to take a crack at the big energy problem. I came to the Chemical Engineering department at Stanford. I remember I asked my advisor, Jens Nørskov, there are a lot of big energy projects he works on and I asked him, “Which one are you the most excited about?” I figured this guy probably knows a lot more than me about all of these problems. I just asked them, “Which one are you the most excited about?” He said, “I like the chemical fertilizer.” I was like, “I will choose that. I will work on that.”

FO: That makes a lot of sense. Just as a slight aside, I was reading, it was an article just published, I saw it this week, just pointing out the fact that related to the Covid story, the point that there’s too much focus on positive results in peer-reviewed literature. I think we could all probably attest that it would be much better if some null and void efforts were considered a useful contribution as well. With you guys there.

I’d like to, maybe just for the broader audience that we have here on the podcast, get a nice layman’s description of, at the core, what it is about the technology first and foremost, before we dive into how you guys see taking this and moving it forward as a new venture.

NP: Great question. I think the best way to describe it is as if you were to come across it on a farm and what you’d see. We’re currently working on a farm in Fresno, California at the Center for Irrigation Technology. If you drive up to this farm, you’ll see an array, a 3-kilowatt array of solar, sitting in the middle of a field. We designed and put that array in there. But this isn’t a normal solar array. Underneath this is a device that we developed that converts air and water and the renewable electricity coming from the panels. It converts those ingredients into nitrogen fertilizer in solution with water. Then off to the side of the panel, you’ll see this irrigation system. We turn air and water and electricity into nitrogen fertilizer, and then we provide that to crops directly at the point of use. The magic is in the technology that sits underneath that panel.

FO: Tell me a little bit about the business of fertilizers today, in the United States, obviously, where we have a sophisticated, intensive farming capacity, but maybe more broadly, as well as in other markets internationally. What’s the role of nitrogen ammonia in the delivery of food? A little bit about the energy intensity of that particular process, and maybe a little bit about where we’re going, given the growing demand for food with a growing population.

JM: Most synthetic fertilizer today comes from the Haber-Bosch process. It makes ammonia. It’s an unsustainable process that ends up emitting a ton of fossil fuel emissions in the form of carbon dioxide. It actually emits over 1% of all global CO2. They produce this ammonia in these mega centers that are billion-dollar-scale facilities. From these billion-dollar-scale facilities—there’s about 200 or so of them in the world—have to distribute the ammonia through pipelines and trucking all over the world. That ammonia ends up getting transformed into various forms of nitrogen fertilizer that are applied to crops today, but is basically the foundation of what our fertilizer is.

FO: This ammonia production, obviously, you need a lot of hydrogen, I guess. And a lot of hydrogen, you need a lot of natural gas. Is that fair enough, or is that characteristic of today’s value chain?

JM: That’s right. The Haber-Bosch process uses natural gas, or other fossil fuels, as coal processes as well to convert those sources of energy into hydrogen. Then that hydrogen is mixed with nitrogen to make ammonia.

FO: I see. I think the point that you raised there, the fact that 1% of global CO2 emissions are associated with this, that will probably stand out for many people as a surprising number, actually, but it is a huge number. Obviously, it’s a difficult and challenging process to really bring a cleaner solution to, or at least, that’s been the case until you guys have arrived on the scene, which is exciting.

What’s the vision now, guys, that you’ve moved to the point where you’ve come together as a group, you’ve got the technology through some initial work, you’re gaining momentum with winning things like the Clean Energy Prize, which is a huge deal. How does this grow to meaningfully address this market? How do you guys hope to take it forward?

JS: I think one of the big things we’re targeting is not just those carbon emissions that Josh just talked about. When we look at how fertilizer is actually used today, an awful lot of it is just washed off the field and that leads eutrophication. There’s also a lot lost through microbial processes that produce N2O. The global warming potential of that is actually much greater than the CO2 that’s emitted by just the Haber-Bosch process.

FO: I think that’s probably a superb point. Let’s come back to the first and foremost. Coming from a farming background myself, I know for sure one of the most depressing things a farmer can face is having sprayed your fertilizer, that it rains and then all your fertilizer just washes away. In your system, is it a more integrated system where you’re producing it and then you guys are managing its distribution in a more effective sense than is typically the case today?

JS: As I think Nico was alluding to when he was describing our system, one of the attributes we’re really excited about going forward is the ability to put this on a farm and follow it very directly to the irrigation. That will indeed allow you to apply the fertilizer as it’s needed, rather than putting it down and hoping you don’t lose all of it.

FO: I see. So it becomes a distributed integrated component in the overall management across the farm?

NP: Yes, sir. One aspect that we’d like to point out is if you install a system that turns the air and water and solar into fertilizer on your field, your field can effectively fertilize itself. You can shift the focus from the factories and from the supply chain, and what’s cheapest to ship, and what can be best produced in a very large factory. You don’t focus on that anymore. What you focus on is the field itself and nothing other than delivering the most perfect form of nitrogen at the most perfect time, pH, and everything else. Maximize how you grow the crops effectively and minimizing waste and CO2 emissions.

FO: To be honest, guys, I have to say this sounds too good to be true. Maybe it’s just because you guys are slick West Coast guys. Us guys up here at MIT are not quite as good at selling. Where’s the current challenge with respect to this? What you’re describing, it feels to me like there must be an immediate and enormous market, or at least appetite for a solution like this.

NP: First and foremost, our team effectively moved about several blocks away from the farm where we installed this. If it were easy to do, we wouldn’t be effectively living on a farm right now working on the system.

BR: Also, it does require a fair amount of energy. One thing that we are taking advantage of is the falling cost of solar panels. If you were to try to pull this off 10 or 15 years ago, it wouldn’t have made any sense from a cost standpoint, just because renewables were so expensive.

FO: Right. What about enabling solutions in other markets? You guys are working in Fresno, California now, some of the best agricultural land in the world, I guess, certainly some of the most sophisticated farms in the world. Going forward, for the company, I suppose, maybe more specifically, is the niche going to be in serving a market like that here in the States, maybe in Europe, or other large scale intensive agri-sectors? Or is there a play for what you guys are doing in places like India and so on? Where we’ve seen quite interesting approaches to renewable irrigation, et cetera, beginning to gain some traction.

JM: One of the key things we’re thinking about for beachhead markets and things, is because of this very advanced complex distribution network of 200 Haber-Bosch facilities going to all the farms in the world, you end up getting three to five times the cost of your fertilizer that you would if you lived right next to the gate of one of these Haber-Bosch facilities. These high distribution costs contribute to an excellent opportunity for Nitricity to get in the market while we continue to bring our costs down. We see a really big opportunity in, of course, very sunny places where we can take advantage of the solar electricity being cheap and abundant. But also, eventually, into developing markets where they have little access to fertilizer and they have an incredible need for more crop growth to feed their populations.

FO: Right, right. In terms of, then, going after all of this, guys, tell us a little bit about exactly where Nitricity is today as an entity. Now that you’ve got a big a check, maybe not so big a check, but a check from the Clean Energy Prize, what are you guys going to do with that? What’s the near-term commercial plan look like?

NP: Good question. Right now, we’re executing a contract on a small farm, a test contract, a test system, on a small farm. The next thing to do is build something that’s representative of a standard farming plot of land. Scale from our one-acre-sized test system now to an irrigation set you’d actually see on a farm today. These are much, much larger. These are anywhere from 30 to 130 acres.

This prize is a great opportunity for our team and it’s going to have an immediate company and climate impact, helping us put a system in the soil on a larger, say, 50-acre plot next year as a goal. Something that you could see throughout many farms around California, Central Valley, and around the world where there’s a need for it.

FO:  In terms of the earlier markets that you guys are going to be increasingly relevant in, is what you’re offering really something that’s going to be a compelling play within the organic sector initially?

NP: That’s a great question. We recently toured a large commercial organic farm, actually, Brian and I, last weekend or the weekend before. What struck us is that organic fertilizer today is very expensive. For example, a great organic fertilizer today is chicken feed. This provides a lot more than nitrogen. It has some N [nitrogen], some P [phosphorus], and some K [potassium], and many other things in there, so you’re not just buying nitrogen. But nitrogen is the most essential nutrient needed to help plants grow. If an organic crop needs nitrogen, you have to go to something like chicken manure to get there.

To the best of our knowledge, there’s no regulations based on what the chickens eat that make that manure. Often, it’s Haber-Bosch nitrogen fertilizer that’s passed through an animal and then collected and put on the field for even more carbon dioxide emissions than what would happen if you were to just buy it from the factory. There’s additional shipping and whatnot there, and it’s very expensive. Organic fertilizer or organic nitrogen is very expensive. We recently had a great quote from a very well-known farmer in California. We asked him, “Sir, what do you do if it’s the middle of a season, you put chicken manure down at the beginning of the season to get your nitrogen, but now it’s the middle of the season and tomatoes are starting to bear fruit, and this is when the plants need a lot of nitrogen. What do you put down in the middle of the season?” He said that there’s really no great cost-effective options today to do that. If this could qualify as organic, it would be a big game-changer for our company, most certainly.

FO: I was wondering that. Are you guys qualified organic? Do you guys have to go through the process? I know there are processes for some certifications, at least. Is this high on the agenda?

BR: Definitely high on the agenda. There is a process for becoming organic certified and we’re definitely looking into going through that process at a high level. Our only ingredients are air, water, and electricity, so there’s a strong argument to be made for it being an organic fertilizer, but there is a formal process that we need to undergo before we can claim that we have that label.

FO: Right. Given all that, guys, tell me a little bit about partnerships or interest from investors. Where are you guys at in that process today? Maybe some reflections on the role the Clean Energy Prize, and participating in the Clean Energy Prize, has played in growing that network, shaping that network, providing some exposure for what you’re doing.

JS: I think one of the really great things we’ve had so far is being able to interact with so many farmers, and I think that’s really giving Nitricity an idea of what farmers really need, and enable us to match what they really want.

JM: We’ve been partnering with a number of farming companies and irrigation companies that have expressed interest in getting our pilot plants on their facilities and potentially paying a premium to get us off our feet, then applying that, if it was successful in growing their crops, to a larger number of acreage that they would have control over. That’s been a good strategy for us so far and we’re interested in continuing to expand that.

BR: Another source of funding that we’re very excited about is we’ve been in contact with several aid organizations and philanthropic organizations who are very excited about the impact this technology can have in more developing and underprivileged regions.

FO: You guys are stepping into this now in a more full-bore manner and that’s exciting. What’s the plan just in terms of scaling up over the next six months? Obviously assuming this Covid doesn’t switch everything off for another six months. Now that lockdown is being phased out, what’s the Nitricity plan for the foreseeable future?

NP: That’s a great question. We’re delighted to recently win this MIT Clean Energy Prize award. We were also recently awarded the grand prize for a business competition at Stanford called the BASES competition for another $45,000, which is very exciting for the company. We’re talking to a lot of outside investors and, actually, we were awarded another great one. We can’t publicly release it just quite yet, but we’ve gotten a lot of people who are believing in this vision, and so it’s really humbling and exciting to be able to work on this and to have other folks supporting us.

Our goal is to have all this funding go immediately to having a company in climate impact. That means getting hardware in the soil, connected to solar panels, and making fertilizer, decarbonizing fertilizer production in the valley. We’re going to be driving up and down California Central Valley and trying to use this funding in a productive way to decarbonize this industry and get going. So scale-up. The next stage is getting on a real 70-acre plot, and it’s a big scale-up. That’s something we’re really excited about and can have a big carbon dioxide impact.

FO: I’m very much looking forward to following you over the next few months and indeed years as you move this effort forward. I really appreciate you being willing to take a few minutes today to come speak to us about what you guys are at, just at this nascent period in the company’s formation and startup. Really, all I can say is, I wish you guys all the very best going forward.

NP: Thank you very much.

BR: Thank you.

JS: Thank you for having us on.

JM: Thanks, we really appreciate this opportunity, it’s awesome, thank you.

Electric powerIndustry

Press inquiries: miteimedia@mit.edu

We're hiring! Learn more and apply