In our quest to delve the depths and climb the heights of innovation and interest in the industry, we are proud to release the first of many interviews with pioneering individuals and organizations. An obvious first choice was the designer, speaker, and all around brilliant human Neil from Nyborg Systems. Our talk here is a seriously wild ride through energy systems design, micro-nuclear reactors, behavioral science, and much more. Strap in and enjoy.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF ENERGY SYSTEMS THROUGH HISTORY
Thanks for talking to us Neil. When we prepped you mentioned being really interested in energy systems design from a more holistic stance. Can you talk more about that? Why is it interesting? What solutions are you seeing in the industry and beyond?
So more or less if you look at the evolution of energies from humanity having downed trees to whale oil to coal to petrochemical to today, energy is something that always benefits industry first because it is new technology. New technology is typically a little more expensive and it's pretty risky and people don't have a ton of money for it but if you want to move a million tons of steel a day you have more of a financial interest in it and the means to make progress.
In the first half of the last century, even when electricity really started to become a thing, the easiest way to spread the love was with wires; following the telegraph it made a lot of sense to move that direction. Moving coal or oil around the country is a pain in the ass. In order to get energy out to the farthest reaches the easiest thing to do is to put it up out of the ground on sticks with wires, thus the grid was born. How new tech develops commercially is serving the affluent persons like local doctors who could afford the electricity first. As the market continued to evolve someone invented a washing machine, someone invented a dryer, all these things that were amazing tech in the last century, and have now become super commoditized. A Microwave costs sixty dollars there's 40 dollars of crap piled on top with five dollars in parts and fifteen dollars of profit. As energy systems have developed as a whole we see these machines that have to be kind of out of the box straightforward. Like a boiler, you plug it into gas, wire some electric, hook up the steam pipes and it's good to go. I don't have to worry about where the gas is coming from. Out of the boiler we get 84% efficiency so 16% is going out the chimney, and these sorts of things. Though in European building codes they recover the energy and enhance efficiency.
It's very common to effectively self-contain machines and then throw away the excess heat and the bummer about that is the discrepancy that it results in is you're using way more than you need. Yet at the same time that’s not to say we need to use less energy. By using more energy human beings become more successful. The energy consumed per capita is the equivalent of each person in the modernized world having 52 personal servants in a pre-industrial world. Sounds kind of crazy, but we walk around as superhumans, we are like gods compared to the old world. And the next level-up for humanity is quite literally up. That's gonna take a lot more energy.
When railroads were invented there is a quote that says something like "now we have conquered time and space.” Now we have supersonic jets, and we have Elon Musk talking about 1 hour planetary express in his rockets, and in order to pull all that off, to take the next step up in conquering time and space, we need to make a f***ton more energy than we currently are making. I guess as a designer I get infuriated by wastefulness of efficient solutions and taking heat from one place and just throwing it away, it bums me out. I look for integrated solutions where we say hey let's take the waste heat off that compressor, that's actually the condenser and use the condenser to preheat something else that needs preheating, whatever is left over you have to create a differential but you can run that to a condenser stack outside and not have to use compressors that are multiple times the size and reduce your energy footprint and your carbon emitting profile.
When it comes to my designs I am always looking for opportunities to do that. It's like, oh let's throw another flat plate in it, oh throw a flat plate in that too because those things are very affordable and really efficient and it makes energy efficiency this pretty accessible thing. But on the large scale, energy has to change because in order to make way more energy than we do. There's this kind of funny thing where the term nuclear scares the s*** out of people. But chemical for me is horrible! One time I had a talk with a gentleman who said pound for pound uranium vs coal which one would you eat, i was like if you are talking about producing energy, uranium is a million times more energetic than coal. Then i would rather eat the energy equivalent of one pound of coal in uranium any day
THE PLAN TO BUILD SMALL MARINE NUCLEAR REACTORS
Absolutely nuclear has a bad wrap, which is interesting because its an immediate and accessible way to change energy infrastructure. Yet, the stigma still exists.
Yes, though rightfully so. On top of a lot of capitalistic infighting between producers there has been plenty of political turmoil on the social setting. But the thing about nuclear that missed the mark starts in post WW2 USA. Admiral Rickover from the navy, the guy who is the father of naval nuclear power; he employed Fermi and all those other guys to build him these tiny modular nuclear reactors. They work marvelous on submarines. They are small, they are portable, they drive around under water. And also the vast majority of the world's population lives near the coast so the vast majority of power is needed near the coast. so having a nuclear reactor in the ocean is like the greatest idea ever.
Totally, there are so many system design benefits.
Right, infinity cooling and everything. And so that's where I have pointed my nose in terms of the helm of my ship, Nyborg. To make a power play to address the energy crisis by putting small modular nuclear reactors in the ocean.
And using a completely different kind of reactor design called a subcritical reactor, some people call it a laser reactor. It doesn't melt down, it runs off thorium and sucks carbon out of the water and dissolved CO2 and converts it to natural gas with the water as hydrogen. Then it sends gas to the land and which be pipelined and can make natural gas so cheap because there is roughly 2.7x10^14 kg of carbon in the atmosphere in excess to historical maximum. So there is free carbon in the atmosphere now. We just have need to have a solar/nuclear heyday decarburizing the atmosphere and making natural gas that can be further reacted into larger hydrocarbons like plastics. You effectively can do fission to plastic carbon sequestration, and deploy these things in the ocean on a coast and anyone who needs a reactor has infrastructure, because there's already this really bitchin' underwater pipeline system because they've got huge natural gas reserves under the ocean all over the world. Big ones in Australia, and there's companies already that lay ultra durable gas pipes so you can plop a field of these reactors under the ocean around natural gas pipelines.
Man you are blowing my mind. That is amazing, a noble path forward. So let's look at the industry we are in pushing forward into the future. What do you think are some of the low hanging fruit (such as pushing heat around). So lets start there, are people starting to do this? Are you seeing this maturation across the field or is it still natal?
Well the thing I love about cannabis industry is how people experiment and how Libertarian it is. There are thousands of people with no formal education and moderate to terrible self-esteem actively taking place in the scientific process. It’s the best. thing. ever! This movement is of massive social significance for humanity. In our social evolution of species we are kind of at this really amazing precipice. So for me I help support the industry with the “fuck it. Let’s try that.” Attitude.
I just love it when people come to me and say “hey, we want to do this interesting different thing.” Though others are like, “that’s scary an expensive.” I totally understand that. But if someone comes to me wanting to be adventurous but are in the early stages of their business I try to give them the information they need to do it themselves. That’s why I like putting on seminars. Here are the keys to the kingdom. When I see the maker movement, what it’s done for household electronics, cannabis industry can do for fluid systems and chemical engineering.
HOW WE CHANGE THE FUTURE
That's awesome, an excellent and hopefully prescient vision. Let's look at this, in the long term how do you think that discoveries made by people like yourself and those that will be made can impact energy design at large within capitalistic industry production.
That’s an interesting question. So energy design at large is currently based on a system that has an entrained structure. And if you look at system evolution over time, things have a kind of a transitional look to them. People look really silly when they outwardly threaten a multi-trillion dollar industry controlled by the wealthiest 0.1% of people. It's laughable. And at the same time there is a huge opportunity for change. 50% of the petrochemical energy is making plastic. So the energy industry is happy to do new things that help make more money. That's the way it works in the game, when you play. Petroleum industry is going to continue for the foreseeable future. However, when you look at the opportunities for design change, the opportunity arises to push things a certain way. Why shouldn't that 50% of energy that is the petrochemical industry become another 50% of plastic production?
For instance the petrochemical industry was happy to participate in nuclear. In the 1970's shell oil company built a huge nuclear fuel reprocessing facility, well over a billion dollars, and was ready to take it on. They said, “yeah let's build a bunch of nuclear reactors all over the place and that's how we are going to solve our energy crisis in the 70s and 80s.” Then Carter through an executive order said no more nuclear fuel reprocessing in the United States because it is a nuclear weapons proliferation issue. Which of course is totally bogus. Anyway this billion dollar investment that Shell made went down in flames. Some people like to wring their hands at the oil industry as to why nuclear isn't the the thing but that coin has two sides.
For me the next phase is power to gas. Power to gas tech, there is a bunch of ways to do it, i am going to try a certain way. I've been consulting with subject matter experts who have published a bunch of interesting papers about power to gas. Currently fracking in the US for gas extraction its all being extracted by small businesses on contract to large businesses who then sell the gas. So the little guys are in there actually getting the gas. I’m a little guy, I’m not a multi-millionaire or billionaire. But if I punch these numbers into the calculator I think I can build a nuclear reactor for about ten million dollars in the ocean that has ten thousand dollars worth of thorium in it and it will make twenty four million dollars in the natural gas, and then i'll put another 10k dollars worth of thorium in it a year later and make another 24 million dollars worth of natural gas. And I’ll still be a little guy.
Cannabis industry has all these incredible developments going on, all these revolutionary things, a lot of people talking about continuous flow systems. Yet of the 100’s of businesses at MJ Bizcon expo last year, only one of them showing continuous flow equipment. But its growing... I've quoted continuous flow equipment, and a few others have. And I'm just a little guy even in this landscape, you guys over at SciPhy are freakin' ballin! (thanks!) I'm happy to help this industry evolve.
I am a big believer in brain building and behavioral science. I've seen people take up new skills incredibly quickly and really grow and repair their self-confidence and I've done the same for myself. When i see people do that while helping cannabis accomplish its mission it’s amazing. In the meantime i'll stand on the surfboard and roll towards my mission, and we can all help each other out along the way.
It's so interesting you say that, absolutely. We try to work at presence of mind and pushing ourselves and each other in the direction that we need to go for kind of like a holistic level of health and progress that’s integrated, and i think we see more and more of that coming up in the this industry because it is a medicinal industry at this point.
RAPID FIRE: CONTINUOUS FLOW, INSPIRATIONAL UNCLES, AND BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE
So now I want to do some quickfire questions, maybe a little more canna focus. What are some of the most potent lessons mechanically or organizationally from other industries that we can use here?
So mechanically the cannabis industry for more scaled producers really need to learn those continuous process flow steps. They are ready for it and I think that that medium size continuous process machine is a huge market need in cannabis, and like I've said it happily quoted a container-sized 2000 LB a day continuous process system. These open-top systems for solvent processing are ultimately a bit silly, and by silly I mean scary dangerous and inefficient. It makes sense why it’s being done this way currently, it works, it’s cheap to build. If I was into manufacturing I’d likely be doing it the same way as everyone else! The continuous systems they don't exist and so that's the challenge that the market is facing and so there are i think plenty of bold innovators out there who are ready to give this a try. It’s time to boldly innovate where no one has innovated before.
As the industry tends to do.
Right! So I guess a big one mechanically in all of this is rotary seals. People are scared to death of rotary seals, I apologize for the long arc there, but to get to continuous process flow rotary seals are a totally different animal and if you want do it right like it is done at the industrial scale then you need to do liquid set rotary seals and have a rotary seal support system. So that definitely ups the cost ante up from a compressed teflon ring rotary seal. Another is that people are scared to death of butane but with critical solvents dimethyl ether is pretty interesting because its heat of vaporization is significantly lower than the heat of vaporization for butane and propane and other anes and ethanol and it seems to do a pretty good job.
Its funny we might have to see one of two things, either a gigantic player enters that innovates on all of this or a full maturation cycle before we see the implementation of most of the processors we are reviewing here, though they are being integrated now at small scales. Or some strong revenue cycles to reinvest in the technologies, but it will eventually happen, its inevitable.
Let's do one or two more and then we will close it up. Is there a problem in the cannabis industry that you think everyone is ignoring but will come up in the future really hard. Something that will bite our butts down the line.
Being a nihilist I’m frank to the fact that there will always be huge problems.
There might be another way to say this: what do you think the industry will not be doing in 5 years.
One thing that doesn't make sense at all are legislative mandates on indoor growing. The sun is free dude, it's ridiculous. I don’t know if that will “bite our butts” but it is certainly increasing production costs and emitted carbon.
Ok next rapid fire, what's your favorite tool in your shop.
Perfect. Next, how did you get to the level of mechanical proficiency you have today, what was the key learning moment in your career that pushed you towards where you were.
After the navy I was at a critical turning point in my life, and my great uncle Clifford, my father’s father’s brother liked to drive around the country solo visiting the family every couple of years. Cliff was a brilliant computer programmer, worked on the Apollo missions. When Tandy personal computer came out he cracked the OS and rewrote it and sent it back to them with his bug fixes and they sued him immediately! Crazy character of a guy. Brilliant engineer. Cliff was not pleased that I had gone navy and wanted me to go to college instead, but when i got out and wanted to go back to college and get into bioengineering he was like, why? You've got everything you need, go work somewhere, and learn and work your way into a higher level, develop skills you can take elsewhere. I took his advice, got a job at Bloom Energy, this venture backed energy company, a fuel cell company, and started doing UL inspections which was boring as s***, but I've been building stuff since I was a kid. Probably spent years of my life building Lego. With my nuclear skill set I plugged right into this fuel cell company, it's a different design but at the end of the day its thermodynamics. It's all the same, just moving heat around. I worked my way up until i had a whole team, was interfacing with their core science team to build and run a multitude of experiments. For instance I made a custom natural gas blending test station for %.1 of ccm control over like 8 catalytic reactors. I really found my niche in the building and everything has followed. That was my critical moment that took me on to do what i do now, my great uncle telling me to just f****** go do it, not to wait any longer.
Excellent inspiration, thank you so much for sharing that. Last one! What is your top line level of advice for anybody in cannabis processing.
Behavioral science! You said earlier top things that cannabis needs? Behavioral science, lots of it. Everybody needs it, all of humanity needs it. Our most significant tragedies of the last several thousand years are based upon our misunderstanding of how our own brain works. We have thousands of generations of ancestral memory. Thoughts are like genes and that's where humans socially evolve from. It has been discovered that anxiety and compulsive behavior all these sorts of self-defeating behaviors we are all affected by have these root program matrices that are fed to us and jump from person to person via the first 5-ish years of a kid’s life. And its where a lot of weird s*** comes from, its where a lot of violence comes from, where catastrophic human behavior mostly comes from. This prison crisis in the United States is because we collectively don't know how our own brains work. It is so common to hear anecdotes from people of their own way on how to punish “the wicked”, and therein display the obscene themselves. The entire concept of “justice” as a society, we need to turn that on its head if we are going to make it. There is a great quote I read that says “we really out to think about what we are thinking about”. In that realm of neuroscience and behavioral everybody has the same meat-suit. But peoples brains grow in different ways, and the brain is a growable, malleable, changeable organ. You can evolve it any direction. We are not even beginning to harvest the true potential you can do with this organ.
You can look at Neil's work at https://www.nyborgsystems.com/ and if you want to see more interviews, analysis, and project coverage follow us on Instagram @sciphysystems and sign up for our email list below.
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