Our business and technology strategies are a reflection of our values. Most of us are “Systems-Level” thinkers and engineers. This means, we are constantly measuring our choices in terms of how they impact the larger picture. Ammonia captured our attention because it is a commonplace, naturally occurring compound that ties into our biosphere in a number of ways. Its chemical formula
is a reflection of abundance, one of our core values.
Abundance is the opposite of Scarcity. The traditional economies human societies have built up around natural resources are based on scarcity, whether real or imposed. One systems-level view on scarcity is that it stimulates disruptive innovation.
Looking at modern agriculture, since the Green Revolution, as built up around a scarcity of available Nitrogen we see both a natural and a man-made scarcity. The rate at which the natural processes involving microbes, plants, and atmospheric electrochemistry (lightning) is limited, by thermodynamics. The growth of human population and density, by the 1940’s (and now) demands higher rates of nitrogen fixation than nature provides.
Here we see a disruptive (positive) link between Scarcity and Innovation: The Haber Bosch process. Liberating Hydrogen from another naturally occurring compound, Natural Gas, and combining it with atmospheric Nitrogen, this innovation of the 40’s provided a way to fix more Nitrogen in the soil. A former economy, which had relied on mining and slow, organic, processes, gave way to a faster, cheaper, industrial process, which must have seemed infinite, by comparison.
The reality is only half-true. Nitrogen is the most abundant element in our atmosphere. Natural gas, however, is not only naturally limited, it is scarce by economic necessity. The energy and (deferred) environmental cost to extract Natural Gas establishes a minimum cost-per-BTU that industry must maintain, to continue. The ammonia fertilizer industry inherits that cost, and compounds it with another cost, that is typical of scarcity: Transportation. The distance between supply and demand multiplies the effective scarcity on the economy, which in this case, means farmers and human population centers where food is needed.
Aethrea is motivated to address the problem of human hunger. As scientists, we further acknowledge the problem imposed by the growth of the human population and the overuse of soil and water resources concurrent with, and supported by, industrial farming with Nitrogen supplements.
Our business and technical response to this is twofold: We turn farmers into the market-makers of ammonia fertilizer. We provide a “wholistic” picture of Nitrogen generation, stored nitrogen, and usage, that permits a complete and sustainable nitrogen economy to emerge.
This does not directly impact human population and demand on soil resources, obviously. Analysis of the factors contributing to human population, however, show the unsustainable growth occurs in places of greater scarcity of food.
This is what we talk about, every day, at Aethrea. How will the work we do impact future generations as well as our own? What will this product mean to 7 billion people living on Earth?
Our current vision is that once we have demonstrated the effectiveness of sustainable ammonia generation at the industrial farm scale, we can take the same solution, scale it down, and bring it to farmers in emerging markets. Just as at the large farm, the microfarmer needs a integrated solution which reflects the best use of the water, soil, wind and solar energy, and connects a local market of ammonia producers with local need.
Some Personal Values — Peter Swearengen
As the current Executive Director of Aethrea/Wind-To-Green, I am often challenged to explain what we do in as few words as possible. For the last three years, since we began developing a reactor and energy storage system for Solid-State-Ammonia-Synthesis, I have mostly focused on a technical explanation. Something like:
“We are liberating ammonia fertilizer production from natural gas and making it local. Farmers in the Pacific Northwest pay US$1000 per tonne for anhydrous when it’s being produced for US$200 just offshore, in the Caribbean.”
So far, that message only connects to farmers, who as a group, value their independence above practically everything. Most of us living in North American cities, don’t experience the consolidation of farming, lost soil-microbial-diversity, or even the pressure imposed on the food and energy markets by ethanol and natural gas production. We are aware of distant consequences of rising corn prices and the growing population makes our minds go blank.
I decided, recently, that I will shift my emphasis in communication, from our tech strategy, to our values. I will talk about the people we will affect. I will talk about why we are passionate geeks when it comes to systems-level-thinking, and I will share more personal stories.
It might mean we’ll sound less like a traditional tech company and more like a non-profit. We will have to explain how profit and long-term, multi-generational, goals are compatible. But that’s a conversational challenge we do enjoy.
Values — Jack Swearengen, Sr. Scientist
Industrial ecologist Thomas Graedel developed a methodology for evaluating specific activities for possible impacts on global environmental sustainability.
But Graedel’s platform was much broader: he set forth four “Grand (Ω) Objectives for life on Earth, its’ maintenance, and its’ enjoyment.” The Grand Objectives were
Ω1: Maintain existence of human species
Ω2: Maintain capacity for sustainable development
Ω3: Maintain diversity of living things
Ω4: Maintain aesthetic richness of the planet
Graedel then derived critical concerns, targeted activities, and directed actions that follow from his Grand Objectives. When aggregated with the actions of others, properly chosen local actions will promote one or more of the Grand Objectives.
The Grand Objectives are consistent with objectives derived from Scripture for human endeavor. The Bible teaches that creation has been (is being) damaged in four dimensions as a result of mankind’s ungodly course. The four dimensions are spiritual, environmental (or physical), social, and psychological; and pursuit of “global” sustainability must address these four categories. Translating these objectives to a secular equivalent leads to an equivalent set of coordinates―- namely, economic, sociological, psychological, and aesthetic.
Expressed in the secular coordinate set, these are my values. They represent the healing of God’s creation in any or all of the four dimensions. One derived postulate must be added: as I work on one of the dimensions―in my case more often than not using technology―I must be careful not to create harm in one or more of the other three dimensions.