The Social Impact Leaders Series is a collaboration between Fairlight and The Silicon Valley Podcast, spotlighting groundbreaking philanthropists and social entrepreneurs who are striving to elevate communities, improve the economy and protect the earth. These discussions are summarized and edited excerpts from interviews conducted by Shawn Flynn with social impact leaders we think you should know about.
Next in the series we have Jonathan Trent, a senior research scientist at NASA for 20 years who has been conducting research on marine science, microbiology, medicine, nanotechnology, engineering and environmental sciences. After doing seven TED talks, he is now leaving NASA to do his own startup called UpCycle Systems, which accepts wastewater and converts it to renewable assets, clean water, steam, electricity, gas, and minerals.
Shawn Flynn, The Silicon Valley Podcast: Can we hear about your time at NASA and all the amazing things that you worked on?
Jonathan Trent: I came to NASA in the context of what they call astrobiology, where astrobiology is the study or the attempt of studying life in the universe. Could there be life in the universe? And what might it be like? I had been studying the biochemistry and biology of organisms living in really extreme environments. When NASA hired me, they wanted me to do biochemistry about organisms living in weird places. Geothermal hot springs living, you know, basically boiling sulfuric acid, trying to understand what an organism does to adapt under those conditions. And that fit their agenda for astrobiology. But I found early on in my career at NASA that studying microbes and molecular biology is really doing nanotechnology. I was studying how organisms function on this nanoscale. How things happen on a molecular level. So I could apply what I was doing on the biology of these extreme organisms to nanotechnology. I started a nanotechnology group at NASA and worked on that for nine years. We basically looked at how molecules could use molecular recognition. That is, how they knew each other and how they knew other structures. We tried to understand how they could interact. But then, about 10 years ago, I started my third part of my NASA career, which was looking at sustainability. How can we apply what we’ve learned about going to space—which is the most resource limited environment you can imagine—to problems here on Earth.
Shawn Flynn: Can you talk about the history of resources in a global aspect? And what should we know now that could help us make decisions?
Jonathan Trent: Well, you know, one of the things I did while I was at NASA, I was asked to be part of a team of government people under the auspices of the Office of Science, Technology and Policy. We were a group of 44 different people from all the different organizations of the government, the Department of Defense, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, NOAA and I was the NASA representative. In this group, we were all looking at resources in the year 2030, playing scenario games about what will the world be like. With population growth estimates over 8 billion people by that time, the distribution of resources that we were anticipating and the changes in the climate that are consistent with all the models that are out there. Would there be water wars? Would there be food wars? How much more food and water and energy do we need to maintain the status quo and it looked like from the models we were looking at, we would need about 35% more food, 45% more water and 50% more energy to maintain the status quo. How is this all going to be influenced by population growth, urbanization, affluence, and of course, climate change? We were trying to understand what we could do to change what seemed to be an inevitable problem of running out of resources. And here’s where Mars comes in. We were thinking about a planet where resources are completely limiting. And we were trying to understand how we could build a recycling system where human waste become a resource rather than a waste product. And that, I think, is what led me to want to leave NASA.
Shawn Flynn: If food, water and shelter became an issue, is there the technology right now to replenish it?
Jonathan Trent: What I’ve decided to do, and the reason I’m leaving NASA, is to focus on how we can optimize this technology, around food, water, and energy. The system that we’ve designed, which we’re calling UpCycle Systems, involves taking advantage of the waste from animals. If we look now, at the Earth, it’s 29% land and 71% water. But if we only look at the land, then it’s about 71% of our land on the earth is usable, 19% or 20% of it is barren, and about 10% of it is frozen. 50% of it is already in agriculture, about 37% is left in forests, about 11% scrub. 1% is covered by freshwater and about 1% to 3% is covered by cities. Now, what’s interesting is that if you look at the agricultural land—about 77% of our agricultural land—three quarters of it is dedicated to growing livestock. Now, some of this land can’t be used for any other thing than livestock, but only 23% of our agricultural land is used for growing crops. Livestock only provides about a third of our protein and about a fifth of our calories. So why is this interesting? It’s interesting because the livestock are on these huge grasslands in the United States. About 41% of all the land is used for grazing cattle. And there are huge areas that are now used for having concentrations of animals, dairies or feedlots. People don’t realize this, but there are now 19 billion chickens in the world with a life expectancy of 45 to 60 days. It’s a huge number of animals. There are an additional 6 billion cows, pigs, goats and sheep. What we’re not taking into account is the huge amount of waste that they’re producing. We’re feeding them 40% of our grain. We’re using about 80% of our water to grow the agricultural crops that are supporting them as well as us. And they use about a third of our energy. So what can we use from these animals that will help us to improve the security of water, food and energy? And the answer is that we use their manure. We use their waste. Now you need to understand that in order to make food, it takes about eight to ten, even twenty, kilograms of feed to make one kilogram of beef. It takes about four kilos of feed to make a kilo of pork, but it only takes about two kilos of feed to make a kilo of chicken. Now, we also eat fish and shrimp and other aquatic animals and they’re much better. It takes less than two kilos of feed to make a kilo of tiger prawns and it takes 1.4 kilos of feed to make a kilo of Atlantic salmon. What we’re proposing is to combine aquaculture and livestock.
We’ve envisioned building a circular system. And how does this work? Well, we take them anywhere from animals, which we will know can be made into fertilizer. But in addition to using it for making fertilizer, we put it into what’s called an anaerobic digester. When you put manure or other organic materials into an anaerobic digester, it can be used to make biogas, which is methane. Methane could be burned to make electricity and heat. But the burning of biogas makes a greenhouse gas called carbon dioxide. Now, we can use the carbon dioxide and the fertilizer that’s made from the anaerobic digester and fertilizer. We can use that to grow the fastest growing plant on the planet, which is micro algae. Now micro algae are interesting for a number of reasons. A, they’re a really fast growing. B, they’re the most efficient plant in the world. And C, they make a substance called omega-3, a fatty acid that we need in our diets. So what do we do with the algae? We feed that back to our animals. If you feed algae to cows, they put omega-3 in their milk. If you feed it to chickens, they put omega-3 in their eggs. If you feed it to pigs, they change the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, making the meat more wholesome. We can also use the algae to make feed and oxygen to support aqua culture. And the waste products from the aqua culture go back to feed algae. So we’ve made a loop. People have known for a long time that you can make manure into fertilizer and you can use manure to make biogas. You can get the biogas in the CO2 to grow algae with fertilizer from the manure. But what UpCycle Systems is going to do is use what we call augmented intelligence to understand and maintain the complexity of the system. Augmented intelligence is going to include sensors on all the different components of the system that will allow us to do data mining, machine learning and decision intelligence.
Shawn Flynn: So can you talk about the revenue model of your company?
Jonathan Trent: We’re going to look at the waste products from animals. And rather than go into a fertilizer-only pathway, we’re going to go into an energy pathway. What UpCycle is going to be doing is helping to design the system. We oversee the system, using the sensors and the augmented intelligence that includes artificial intelligence and data mining. So in our business model, we have an eight-step process with four phases. And in those eight steps, we separate out identifying sites, identifying people, the environment, the engineering and the social aspects.
Shawn Flynn: So I’m trying to visual the future right now. When your company is successful, what will happen then to livestock farms? What will happen to big corporations that right now are investing in meat packaging or environmental waste? How is your system your project going to affect what’s already established?
Jonathan Trent: Yes, this is an important question. A huge amount of the agricultural industry is focused on livestock right now. Aquaculture is a huge industry, not so huge in the United States, but it is in Asia. The future will mean that individual farmers and individual algae cultivators, anaerobic digester companies, water purification activities, fertilizer makers—they will form these collectives and work together so that the waste products from one part of their system will become a resource for another part. And it won’t be a liability, it will be another one of their assets. So we see this as being an inevitable part of how we’re going to move towards a circular economy, how we’re going to move the economics of the world towards a sustainable circular system.
Listen to Shawn Flynn’s whole interview here.
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