Hans De Neve: CEO & Co-Founder of Carbyon – Ep. 110

About Hans De Neve & Carbyon:

Hans de Neve is tackling a seemingly unsolvable problem, capturing the excess CO2 from the air. 

Today we discuss how going against conventional wisdom and the advice of his peers in the science community led to a breakthrough technology that could help us pull carbon from the air and reverse climate change. 

It’s no pipe dream, Hans has already received the prestigious XPRIZE Milestone Award with his company Carbyon, and his work towards helping us achieve negative emissions couldn’t be more important.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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Undoing Climate Change

*2:42 – “We’re developing a machine that can extract CO2 from the atmosphere and do it at gigaton scale. So really to undo climate change, let’s say, to undo what we’ve been doing wrong for the past 150 years. And of course we’ve been emitting a huge amount of CO2 and we’re experiencing the consequences right now. And actually we have the plan to undo that. So to develop a technology that allows to reduce the atmospheric concentrations of CO2. And it’s a kind of a daunting plan because I’ve met much more people that declared me completely crazy of wanting to do it.” 

4:05 – “Many people were afraid to start thinking and working on this topic because they were afraid that they would be laughed at by the so-called serious scientific community because there was this common knowledge, let’s say, among serious scientists that we should never work on or we should never even try to extract CO2 from the atmosphere because it would always be taking too much energy, much more energy than we could ever generate. It would cost too much material, it would be too costly, it would never be economic, so, etc., etc.. There were always arguments why the serious scientific community thought that it was not worth investigating. And that’s really a pity because I think if more people would have left the beaten path before on this topic, maybe we would have been further in developing technology because right now, 2022, I think many people that 10 years ago or 20 years ago said it was not possible to do, today they see that as technology advances and they think that, ‘okay, maybe we were wrong and maybe it is possible.’ It’s not yet proven but what the message is that sometimes we need to leave the beaten path more often and do some crazy stuff.” 

7:34 – “It was a little bit irrational because a rational person would say, ‘No, no, no, before I quit my job, I’m going to double check and triple check whether these results are okay and whether people will be willing to pay for it and all of these things.’ I checked none of these things because there was no time. I had to take a decision and I had to say,’ Okay, we need to decide with little information,’ we had little technical information, we had no information about the market, so we had no certainties, right? And that’s what it is in life. I mean, you always need to take a decision and you don’t know if you take the left turn or the right turn. I mean, I could have stayed at the institute where I was working. I was working for a research institute. I had a nice job. I had everything I wanted, if you want, and I could stay there till I was retired and nobody would push me out of there. So that was kind of the certainty. But then I also knew that I could not do this dream that we’re doing right now with Carbyon, and I could not actually develop this technology because they didn’t see any value in it. And they said it was impossible to do and they wouldn’t spend any money on it. So the alternative was to go for the uncertainty and the fact that I had to quit my job. I didn’t know how things would work out. I wasn’t sure about the technology so it was full of uncertainties. And that’s always a difficult moment to decide upon. But then I thought, ‘If I don’t do it, I’m going to regret it my whole life.’”

9:32 – “You need to have a hint. You need to have some idea what you’re looking for. So, I’m not just going out in the desert based on good luck. We had some idea, of course, what we were looking for. But still when you’re leaving the beaten path, it’s like, ‘Okay, nobody has digged there. We think we can find something there.’ And that takes some guts, of course, but it’s also part of the adventure, and that’s really nice about it.” 

The Danger Of Inactivity

*10:12 – (Ross) “I think there are two kinds of people who think that they know things. There are people who just deny climate change. They say it doesn’t exist or it’s not manmade. It’s a normal process that the Earth goes through every so many thousands of years. There’s nothing to worry about. There’s nothing we can do about it. There are a lot of people who think that they know that. I believe that they’re wrong. I think most intelligent people know that they’re wrong or believe that. But then you have another category of, like you said, the scientists, the serious scientific community, who is quite sure that they know that it is a manmade problem, but they also know that it can’t be solved so why even try? Both of those are dangerous because both of those lead to the thought of inactivity in action. Why bother? Let’s just not do anything at all, right?” 

11:55 – “If you’re working on a PhD, I see people choosing too many safe topics and topics that already thousands of people have worked upon, and then they add a small part to that. So that’s safer because you remain in what is acknowledged by the scientific community as a relevant domain of research. But as soon as you do something which is completely different that nobody has yet done before or nobody has even published about before, nobody dares that. And also if you’re working on a PhD and that’s what you propose, you will not find easily a promoter that will support you on that. And I think that’s really a pity. The scientific community stays too much within what they believe themselves to be relevant domains and fail sometimes to start exploring something completely different. And it’s a rare event that people start to research on completely new and undiscovered domains.”

Predicting The Future

*13:32 – (Ross) “When you see a movie from 1997 that predicted the future or even further back, Star Trek, from decades before that, that predicted the future – it’s always more of a representation of that time period than it is of the future. The Fifth Element came out in 1997 – that’s more like what 1997 looked like than what the actual future will be. When people try to predict the future in that way, I think we almost always get it wrong as a species because we can’t imagine how things will change. We say, ‘Oh, there’ll be flying cars and there will be 100 billion people on Earth, but you still have a phone that’s connected to your apartment.’ You don’t have a computer and we can’t predict. And the most exciting thing about technology is how these breakthroughs can completely change our entire society, our entire concept of what’s possible in a very, very, very short time. The iPhone comes out and within a few years the old Nokias are unimaginably old and dated and stupid. But who knew that three years before the iPhone came out in the general public? Nobody. Who could have guessed that? So I think it is important to take that leap and to remember that part of science is exploration. And part of exploration is going after things that are by definition unknown, that you don’t know whether it will be a success or not.” 

18:34 – “I had been following the domain already for the past 10 to 15 years, working as an engineer and a scientist on energy transition. I was very much interested in the technology to turn renewable electricity into renewable fuels, as somehow with electricity as the prime source of energy through solar panels and wind turbines. Electricity is not easy to store, and we can do it in batteries, but that only works to a certain extent. And I was actually on a Christmas lecture hearing about the possibility that you can transform electricity into fuels like hydrogen, but also the combination of hydrogen and carbon into hydrocarbons. And in that way, you can make jet fuel based on electricity. So chemically, the same thing as the fossil jet fuel, you can make it from electricity based on hydrogen and based on that carbon. And that source of carbon has to be a renewable source so it had to come from air, which is then CO2. That was actually the trigger for me ten years ago to start thinking more about this. And I started reading everything I could. And it was clear that in particular that the CO2 from air was an under investigated domain, and it never left my mind.”

The Light Bulb Moment

*20:06 – “I’ve been working mainly on smart grids and solar panels, but it was like five years ago when working on solar panels, we have this technical solution for solar panels, which was the ability to deposit some atomic monolayers that actually made me realise that we could also use that technique to revolutionise the area of direct air capture – so capturing CO2 from air. But I was in a solar panel team and of course the people from solar panels, I mean they had no clue about CO2 and capturing it from the atmosphere. So they said, ‘You know, maybe you’re right, but we’re not going to work on that.’ But it’s exactly that cross-domain thinking – the fact that I had been working in different domains like hydrogen and CO2 and solar panels, that allowed me to make that connection…And that’s another advice I have for people. Make sure that you do different stuff. Don’t stay your whole life in one technical domain. It’s the cross-domain thinking that really leads to true innovation.” 

23:08 – “Making fuels out of carbon, it’s a kind of replacement of fossil fuels. So in a way, that’s a technology that allows to reduce emissions because you will no longer need fossil oil and gas, you can just make it from renewable electricity. So that’s a way to avoid emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. But it’s not a negative-emission technology as this is just a zero-emission technology if you want, but it is a zero-emission technology for which there is a huge demand because more and more people are convinced that we need, of course, to stop using fossil oil and gas. But we cannot all replace that with electrical batteries. We will need, like for aviation and some other sectors, still a hydrocarbon, be it a jet fuel or something else. So if we can turn green electricity into green fuels, you can actually serve these domains like aviation without the need of using fossil oil and gas.”  

24:27 – “What we also will need to do as humanity is we will need to take CO2 back from the atmosphere and keep it out of the atmosphere, so not make fuel with it, but storing it on the ground or doing something that it cannot come back in the atmosphere. So that’s called negative emissions. And so far nobody is willing to pay for that. It will be more of a U.N. debate, probably the countries that are responsible for the historical emissions will have to finance also undoing those emissions. But right now, you will not find anyone that is willing to pay for doing negative emissions…I hope in the end that we will also get an agreement on who will finance the negative emission part so that we can also undo climate change.”

26:12 – [How many machines do we need to make a noticeable difference?] “We’re talking about hundreds of millions of these machines. And that sounds like a big number. But I always tell people that we make every year, 100 million vehicles – cars, trucks, new vehicles. We make them every year again, 100 million. So it’s a big number, but it’s perfectly feasible if you would put the same effort in making machines to capture CO2 from air and make 100 million of these machines every year, we can solve this problem very quickly. So it’s not a number that humanity can’t manage. If we can make 100 million cars every year, we can make 100 million of these direct air capture machines a year, no doubt.” 

27:33 – “Most of them will be powered by dedicated wind farms or solar farms, in particular in those regions where you have abundant wind and sun conditions. Sometimes, indeed, the argument is used like, ‘okay, we have so few green electricity that should we then also use it to capture CO2 from air?’ The fact is that if we have the ability to capture CO2 from air, automatically new wind farms and new solar farms will be built that otherwise would not be built. And the same goes for the fuels. People build dedicated wind farms to make green fuels. And if there was no business case for green fuels, these wind farms would not be built. So it’s not in competition, let’s say, with other wind farms or other green electricity. It’s clear, of course, that we will need to build a lot of wind farms, a lot of solar farms, much more than we have today. And if we want to have all the energy that we use today and do it based on wind and solar, obviously we need ten times more at least than what we have today. But hey, it’s a matter of time. It’s for sure feasible. There is enough energy in terms of wind and solar on earth by far – and we have ten times more than we need every year. So it’s a matter of building these installations…Energy is not so much the concern. There is plenty of energy. We just need to harvest it.” 

35:24 – “You can’t revolutionize things. You cannot close down all the airports, you can’t – you will get a revolution. People will be upset about that. You will disrupt so many things. So what we need to do is to make sure that, of course, society as it is, can continue to evolve in a better, let’s say, evolutionary way. But that, of course, we change, for example, from fossil fuels to green fuels, but we keep using fuels. Why not? If it’s appropriate to use fuels, use fuels. It’s a chemical. You only need to make sure that it’s not heating up the atmosphere. And if you make the chemical based on CO2 that you get from the atmosphere in the first place, well, it will not heat up the atmosphere. So these are smart things that we can do to make sure that people can continue with their lives and society can continue to evolve without disrupting anything.” 

40:53 – “Our mission right now is to prove as soon as possible that this is a viable technology, that you can build a device with that, this device does not consume too much energy, that it’s not too costly to build. And once this is clear and proven, I think many things can change.” 

42:49 – “I think they need a real outdoor working machine that they can come and see and touch and the manufacturing industry saying, ‘okay, it costs so much to produce 100 million of those and this is the energy consumption.’ So they just need to be able to come see it and touch it. So we’re going to build a couple of those, put it around the world, allow people to get familiar with the technology, and then we hope the world will embrace it and do the best with it.” 

43:48 – “We weren’t really looking for this type of funding, but of course when we noticed Elon Musk and the XPRIZE organization launched this challenge, we very much felt that this was something that we had to participate in because it was exactly what we were doing. And it was actually fun doing it because it forced us to – for example, they asked us to describe how a 1 million tonne per year plant would look like. Well, we had never done that exercise in such great detail, but it was nice doing it in that detail. We also learned a lot from it. And of course we knew that if we would be one of the 15 chosen companies that we would get some exposure from it, which is nice. It’s actually a great motivation also for the second round where you need to build a system that can do 1000 tonnes of CO2 per year in 2024. It’s a stretch…if there were not this challenge of 2024, I guess maybe we would have been a little bit more relaxed about doing a 1000-tonne system. But now that this challenge is there and we need to do it by beginning 2024, you start adjusting your plans to speed up things. And that’s what a competition does to you, right? That’s why athletes compete because they have this world championship coming up and they want to be prepared for it and they have these targets and that’s what they work towards. And having this challenge, like the world championship on direct air capture is just a nice competition to be in and it’s motivating a lot of people to do the extra mile and trying to be ready and in good shape by 2024.” 

47:44 – “I’m happier than ever. Once you discover a new continent, so to say, the continent of entrepreneurs – I mean, of course there is stress, but there is also stress in large corporates where you need to do what higher management is telling you to do and you need to meet your milestones there as well. So that also creates stress, but this is stress that you impose on yourself and that’s something else. So we’re a startup company, we’re 15 people, so we decide among ourselves, of course, the type of challenges that we want to engage on. Do we want to do the XPRIZE or do we not want to do the XPRIZE? It’s only us deciding on that. It’s not anyone imposing that on us and the freedom that you experience to make your own decisions; it’s actually a great thing to do. It’s what I discovered doing this now the past three years. I have no regrets whatsoever. I would do it again and probably I should have done it sooner…I’m sure that this is exactly what I want to continue doing. There is no way I want to go back to a big corporate. This is way, way too fun.” 

49:26 – (Ross) “You touch on a point that I hadn’t thought of before, but it does seem true that there are two types of stress. You talk about self-imposed versus external, and we know, especially in Europe, it’s a topic that’s been talked about a lot the last ten years, the concept of burnout and this kind of external stress, this work-related stress that we know if you have too much of it, it’s very, very negative. And I think anybody who’s worked in a corporate environment or anybody has worked in a traditional job knows that level of stress, especially if there’s a lot being asked of them. But then there’s this other stress, which is the performing on stage stress or the winning a competition stress or the beating your own milestone stress or those kind of self-imposed stresses that you talk about, which seems to me to be a good thing. It seems to me to be a positive thing because without any of the good stress, there’s no joy. What’s the point of waking up every morning if there’s not something that’s a little bit of excitement or something of a little bit of unknown? And maybe we haven’t really categorized the types of stress very well as a culture yet and organized that. It’s not that stress is bad, but it’s what kind of stress it is.” 

50:40 – “I think stress can give a lot of energy. I mean, some stress can be bad. Like, indeed, if it’s imposed on you by a boss and you don’t agree with him. But you still have to do it because he’s your boss and that kind of negative stress doesn’t give you energy. But if it’s self-imposed stress, as you said, participating to a competition, that really gives energy. So, absolutely, there’s different kinds of of stress. And the first kind of stress is indeed typically what leads to burnout. The stress that takes energy leads eventually to an empty battery and to a burnout. But the stress that I experience doing Carbyon, for example, it gives energy.” 

52:58 – “I’m the CEO, so I decide, ‘okay, nobody decides what I have to do,’ but then I also put myself in the shoes of the employees and I think like, ‘okay, what do I have to do as a boss to avoid that they run out of mental energy?’ So I try also to give them a lot of freedom. And I’m really ambitious in terms of our goals. Of course I say, ‘Yeah, I want to do that XPrize. I want to run the machine in 2024. I want to do the 1000-tons per year.’ But I tell them, like, ‘if we fail, I’m not going to blame you because I don’t know if it’s feasible and I’m not telling you to do it and I will blame you if we can’t, it’s not going to be your fault. We just take a collective responsibility that we want to do it without knowing that we can do it. And if we fail, we’re not going to blame one another.’ I’m not going to blame my people if we fail doing it because if they feel like I make them responsible for the result and that I will blame them for not achieving a result – that’s negative energy, that’s draining mental energy. They need to know that even though I’m extremely ambitious, that I will never blame them for not achieving these ambitions.” 

56:02 – “‘Planet over Profit’. We try to not just to have it as a slogan, but to also change our legal structure so that we can always make sure that the profits that we will generate will benefit the climate and will not only benefit the shareholders. Shareholders, they need to get a fair compensation of course, for the risk money which they provide. So there is no question about that. But the thing is that it should be fair, it should be in proportion. And I think we’ve seen the last 20 or 30 years that in many cases the compensation for, let’s say risk money, was out of proportion at the cost of environmental problems. Let’s say the society had to pay for the burnouts, for example, or things like that. So shareholders have become very rich, but it has happened at the cost of society. And I think this is what ‘planet before profit’ means. And we need to make sure that whatever we do as a company as Carbyon, that we respect the balance between the compensation for shareholders and these other goals that we have as a company, and we try to adjust our legal structure to that so that there is a kind of ethical committee that can actually overrule shareholder decisions if that balance would be broken.” 

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