On Creating Fuels and Chemicals For The Next 100 Years and The Importance Of Accessible Role Models
Karthish Manthiram is an Assistant Professor in Chemical Engineering at MIT. The Manthiram Lab at MIT is focused on the molecular engineering of electrocatalysts for the synthesis of organic molecules, including pharmaceuticals, fuels, and commodity chemicals, using renewable feedstocks. Karthish’s research and teaching have been recognized with several awards, including Forbes 30 Under 30 in Science.
Show Notes & Links
Madhav: Karthish, thanks for coming on the show.
Karthish: [00:06:16] Thank you. Thanks for having me
Madhav: [00:06:18] originally born in Austin, Texas. Is that.
Karthish: [00:06:23] Yeah, that’s right. So my parents had moved to Austin about a year before I was born and so my sister was born in India and bottom got a in Tamil Nadu. So people often refer to it as the Oxford of South India?
And so she left there when she was a few years old my parents moved here. And that was very much A New Beginning for our.
Madhav: [00:06:49] Aw, sweet well growing up. I mean in Austin just curious like where you convinced that you would actually become a professor at [00:07:00] MIT and do research solving massive problems.
Karthish: [00:07:03] I had I had no idea that at an early age that such a thing was possible.
I think it always felt Out Of Reach as a young kid. I never really felt like the smart person in the room in general and. I think it was only when I started to realize Mid- dle School, especially that if I really put my mind to something that then I could kind of gravitate towards Excellence that things kind of started to click but my dad is a professor.
And so I think that in some ways at a young age inspired me, although there was a very sharp transition so that a very very young age. Island someone would ask you know, what I wanted to do when I grew up I would always say that I want to be a garbage man. This is a great concern for my parents another more worried but when he grows up, right he doesn’t seem to have [00:08:00] much in terms of aspi- ration
Madhav: [00:08:03] or definitely going to hit that goal.
Karthish: [00:08:05] Yeah. Exactly. There’s just something about these big trucks that were driving around, you know the idea of you know, getting to operate big machinery and that’s. Really captivated my mind and then I think I went sharply from wanting to be a garbage man to saying one day. I want to be a professor.
So that was a big change that happened. Probably almost
Madhav: [00:08:29] overnight in some ways. You are helping to clear up some of the garbage in on a planet. I think
Karthish: [00:08:35] that’s right. Yeah. I think it’s fitting in a way that you know that original connection. It was there because you know, it’s sort of become a big part of our research, even though that wasn’t something that I necessarily thought would be a big part of my research and I going back many years.
It’s been a gradual realization that some of [00:09:00] the fundamental discoveries that our lab is had and some of the projects that I’ve been involved in that these could be reconfigured. To have a big impact in terms of how we make all the chem-
icals and materials that we use in our everyday lives always all of the clothing that were wearing to the food that we eat to the Plastics that we use.
How do we make all these things beginning with very basic feedstock. So there is there is this origin story that I guess that goes back to being a very young skin to- day not even sure that I fully recognize that that’s the case.
Madhav: [00:09:32] Wow, just before we move on. I wanted to touch on one thing you mentioned which is like you never had that confidence, you know in Middle School growing up that you are something.
I mean our you’re smart enough. How did you cope with something like that? How did you handle that kind of thing and to get into this growth mindset?
Karthish: [00:09:57] Yeah, so I think what I’ve benefited from very [00:10:00] much at a young age is that my parents always exercised unconditional love so their love for me and their support for me was not preconditioned on doing well at anything.
So it just because I wasn’t necessarily, you know doing the very best in classes at a very young age. I didn’t bother them or if I did poorly on a given exam they weren’t about to condition our relationship or any sort of benefits to me on the basis of how I did in these things. And so that motivation for me like to feel differently very much happened.
When I saw my sister doing very well, so my sister was four years older than me, and I remember her winning some. Awards she was I think valedictorian and middle school and she’s doing very very well [00:11:00] in school and I had this moment where I was like, hey, wait, what were genetically not all that dissimilar so shouldn’t I be able to do this and it that that’s the moment at which it hit me but my sister spent a lot of time with me as a kid.
Just making learning fun. And so she would design lesson plans when I was a kid and sit me down next to all my teddy bears and and and go up to a chalkboard and start going through math and going through writing and correcting my grammar and all sorts of stuff and she just. Loved education. And so I think just being near her and someone who cared so deeply about learning.
It just made it seem like morning was fun. Even though it wasn’t particularly great at it at a very young age. But gradually, I think that had an impact on my own abili- ty that. To do things in my mom also spent a lot of time with me in the in the Summers trying to get me to learn math and do things.
I was often not very compliant engage in that [00:12:00] my sister was much more discipline in that respect by warning the thermo language learning how to read and write them all and all these things and I wasn’t as compliant, but my mom’s told me a lot of effort we engaged to try to get me there. I have that interest
Madhav: [00:12:13] meet having having that.
Close sort of like a person that you can look up to me seems like made a big differ- ence and like it is not something far off and distant somebody on the pedestal somewhere can do this, but actually my sister is doing it. I should be able to do this and having that sort of a role model and the family to support you.
Karthish: [00:12:34] Definitely. Absolutely.
Madhav: [00:12:35] I think if I’m not mistaken. You got married recently.
Karthish: [00:12:41] Yes.
Madhav: [00:12:42] Congratulations on your wedding. I think you know where I’m going with this. But yeah, Mighty flash mob proposal. It was really fun to watch.
Karthish: [00:12:53] Thank
Madhav: [00:12:53] you. You may be the only Professor when Google the top result.
One of the topics would be a [00:13:00] flash mob dance. That’s really cool. That’s pretty cool.
Karthish: [00:13:03] Yeah. This idea came about last summer. I was talking to my sister about proposing to my girlfriend at the time. I told her my idea which was that I was going to propose in front of my class. And so I was going to go through a lecture and teach a lecture about heat conduction in an annulus, which was sup- posed to be shaped essentially like a ring.
And so I. I was going to go through this lecture and then at the end then, you know walk up the aisle of the classroom and propose to her in front of the class. And I told my sister this and you said are you sure this is the best use of instructional time and that wasn’t very subtle way of saying this is not a good idea.
So she actually came up with the idea that I should do. Flash mob instead and my sister in fact choreographed it and I think this this is a continuing theme right just how much of an impact like she’s had on [00:14:00] my life in terms of getting me to do things that I otherwise wouldn’t do. But she put together these videos and about I think 40 to 50 of our friends flew out from all different places a lot from California.
That’s where a lot of our friends there. But everyone flew out here and came here and on a on a Saturday in October last year. You know,
Madhav: [00:14:24] it was phenomenal just watching your
Karthish: [00:14:26] somehow managed to keep it a surprise, which is hard my life usually figured out everything.
Madhav: [00:14:31] Okay, and also yeah absolutely took a little bit Karthish: [00:14:35] of
Madhav: [00:14:36] practicing and it’s putting it all together. Three a good job secret
Karthish: [00:14:43] dancing is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. So if I can dance anyone can dance at The Testament to my sister’s ability to teach I think it
Madhav: [00:14:53] was it was phenomenal and it could be pretty solid MIT hack. Actually [00:15:00] you
Karthish: [00:15:00] have to fit in with the hacker culture here, right?
And that’s something that I think is given me great joy is. How people at MIT find so many dimensions to excel in I think we offer we always remember the technical dimension for excellence. That’s at the Forefront of people’s mind. It’s a part of the name of the institution, but there’s so much richness in life.
And as you get to know people here you realize that. You know people are good at all sorts of unusual and and special things some of which are deeply cultural a part of their own Heritage things that they picked up from their friends and people find ways to excel multi-dimensionally are that’s something that I’ve been very happy to learn about in the time that I did.
I’d been almost three years since a since they started.
Madhav: [00:15:52] Sweet sweet really absolutely agree your work towards and research is outstanding. I won’t even [00:16:00] pretend to know what you really do. It’s too complicated for me really but like if I were to ask you like, how would you describe this to a six-year-old?
Karthish: [00:16:08] Yeah,
Madhav: [00:16:08] like what you do?
Karthish: [00:16:10] Definitely a so the way we describe our work is that if you’re starting with air water and renewable electricity, how can you make all the chemi- cals and materials that you use in your everyday life? So one in this case would start with. CO2 from are so you have a carbon atom Source from the CO2 you then have dinitrogen gas.
That’s your nitrogen atom source, and then from water you get oxygens and hydro- gen’s so you now have four atoms carbons hydrogen’s oxygens and nitrogen’s with which you can start to stitch together relatively complex molecules. So our group is finding a way to use electricity to drive this transformation.
So you can take electricity from a solar panel or from a wind turbines. These are clean [00:17:00] sources sustainable sources. And as long as you feed it air and wa- ter you can start to make a fuel like something that you can put into your car that fuel because it’s made from CO2 and water. When you then combust it and release CO2, it’s actually a carbon-neutral overall.
So this could be a solution to the issues that we face with global warming. Another example is taking nitrogen from the air reacting it with water using electricity and making ammonia. And ammonia is a key part of fertilizers. And so there’s this abili- ty now to perhaps be able to deliver fertilizers to sub-Saharan Africa.
We’re fertilizers have traditionally been very expensive to access. So there’s only two examples of targets that were pushing their others like Plastics that we can also know making these sorts of routes, but this is a very sort of nascent area of research in which we were just starting to kind of push that [00:18:00] Frontier.
Madhav: [00:18:01] Sweetie, I can imagine why you become an amazing teacher. I think I mean you explain them pretty complex things to me in a language that I can really understand. I all
Karthish: [00:18:13] I know is something I just deeply deeply enjoy. Like I think this comes from my dad as well as the my my sister in many ways, you know taught me when I was young but my dad has like this ability to Electrify people in the class- room.
So he’s one like so many awards for teaching and I have always just been impressed by how he breaks down like very very complicated topics into very simple di- gestible. In a very simple digestible manner that feels very casual and communica- tion. So it’s always been a very special thing that you imparted.
They think to me and my sister.
Madhav: [00:18:49] Well, I just just briefly talking about your dad and your sister is they have been a tremendous amount of influence on you. It looks like you don’t dad also has been [00:19:00] teaching and Scott like month theorem Labs at UT. I believe very similar to what you have in a
Karthish: [00:19:06] mighty family business now educated.
Madhav: [00:19:15] An easier sister also into teaching as a career now or we
Karthish: [00:19:19] can say yes, if she’s a pediatric infectious disease doctor at the National Institutes of Health and so her work is about 80% research 20% clinical but teachings always been important for in terms of mentorship and training stu- dents and passing on the knowledge.
That’s a big part of what she does in that role as well.
Madhav: [00:19:42] Perfect. I’m talking about your you know approach to. Putting this different chemical things together to make something of value. Like, can you speak a little bit about your approach to experimenting? I think [00:20:00] one of the key things that I learned when I was at MIT and I took a couple of courses actu- ally one was from Tom Romer from Harvard.
He talked a lot about product experimentation. I’m a product manager but profes- sion. I love to you know, experiment a nitrate and. Learn from the customers and build stuff that they actually want to use like to hear about your approach to ex- perimenting whether in in your work or even in life, like looks like you’ve ap- proached a lot of things seems to be experimenting learning doing things trying out things
Karthish: [00:20:35] obviously.
Yeah, definitely I think. Very quarter. My Approach is what I think of a Socratic dia- logue. So I’m someone who intrinsically asks questions as opposed to making state- ments most of the time at least when I’m interacting working with my students like I value questions much more than I do my [00:21:00] own immediate judgments, and that’s very for me.
It’s condition. By the fact that when a mentor makes a statement it’s often taken with great seriousness as being truth and and the greatest thing in science, I think and it may be in all aspects of life is realizing that something that you believe for there for a very very long period of time.
Turns out to not be true when we take something that’s conventional wisdom and we show that it’s not correct that that assumption that we had or the physics that we expected and all of it needs to be Rewritten. Those are the most enlightening moments. Sometimes when we make statements and clear judgments on something we inhibit that process that someone who’s a newcomer coming into an area.
I can see something in a very different way. So that to me is one of the most excit- ing things is when a new student is coming into the group where a new post Doc is coming into the group. They [00:22:00] may not have what we consider to be expe- rience that leads to wisdom. Right but they have wisdom because they can see something in a very new way and even as students continue in our group, right we have to always make sure that we’re creating this environment in which ideas are valued even from the even from someone who feels that they don’t have expertise on a topic.
And that is important. So a lot of that is done through questioning. So whether it’s in the classroom or in my own office, we’re often going through like a series of questions and trying to answer them together and figure things out at the White- board that for me has been sort of a very important approach to science is to frame things in that way.
Madhav: [00:22:42] Wow, sir. How do you develop this beginner’s mind set? I mean like for first principles thinking or beginner’s mind set. Sometimes it might be per- ceived as maybe this person doesn’t. No
Karthish: [00:22:57] doesn’t know yeah, exactly absolutely [00:23:00] absolutely very much requires that we be that we feel humble and our approach right because there is a tendency to make statements because you want to prove that, you know, so, you know, I see you know, yeah and it takes a lot of practice and correcting think it’s encouraged to I think yeah, there’s a degree of humility.
And so I often try to remind everyone in our group that mother nature knows all these answers. And we have to be humble in the face of Mother Nature to learn what nature already knows and the laws of physics already exists the physics that govern these processes are already out there. Just we have to always be willing to be proven wrong and to be open-minded in that respect but you but you’re abso- lutely right.
It’s a very different culture of doing science but different people thrive in different types of environments, right? I think some thrive in this open-ended question asking Socratic mode of Discovery others thrive [00:24:00] in a very different environ- ment. So we kind of we often attract people who like that mode of operation to our tour group.
Madhav: [00:24:10] Perfect type that makes a lot of sense me. I I really appreciate the Socratic method in terms of asking questions. I find questions asking the right questions actually could lead us to something more valuable than pretending to
know all the answers. Absolutely. I think it froze for a second Heir rihan sweet sweet.
Karthish: [00:24:31] Very good. Okay,
Madhav: [00:24:32] and you’re involved with. I did little bit of digging on kind of things you’ve been doing and you’re involved with the US Army research Labs MIT energy initiative sustainability and environmental friendly fuel production and dis- tribution and things like that. One of the things that struck me and I don’t pretend to know any of the stuff that actually happened but electrochemical versus [00:25:00] thermochemical and it looks like there is some distinction that you’re trying to make which is what we’ve been doing is mostly thermochemical and trying to raise the temperatures and pressures and create this like can you a high-level talk a little bit about the difference that you’re trying to
Karthish: [00:25:14] bring again?
Yeah. So this is a the very heart of the lab is. Understanding how conventional chemical reactions so a process in which you take one molecule and convert it into another this conversion has historically always been done with temperature and pressure. These are the. The variables that are most easily accessible for industry.
So you place a molecule and a big vat and just like cooking pot of food, right you temperature or you put in your insta pot right in the inside temperature and pres- sure and that shows us how potent pressure is right that we can greatly accelerat- ing a cooking Bell or something right? As long as we do it with a [00:26:00] not just temperature but pressure as well.
Chemical reactions in Industry are done in the same way temperature and pres- sure. That’s that’s how you know, the oil that we are the gasoline we put into our car comes through processes involve temperature and pressure the Plastics that we use to carry items or the water bottles that we drink out of.
All those Plastics also come out of pressures come out of processes that involve temperature and pressure. So it’s just like an industrial instant pot that’s doing all these all these sorts of transformation
Madhav: [00:26:32] Australian
Karthish: [00:26:32] turns out though that temperature and pressure are somewhat
Limited in terms of what they can do electrochemical potential.
So that’s just voltage simply is a much more potent variable. For driving reactions. So I reaction for instance in Industry that could be done with hundreds of bar of pressure. So that’s a pressure which is hundreds of times that of [00:27:00] atmos- pheric pressure, which is actually quite dangerous can be replaced with a very small voltage less than that of a double A.
So it’s remarkable right a double A battery can do what would require a vessel. That’s at a very high temperature pressure. And that’s that’s why our lab is trying to remove temperature and remove pressure and replace those with voltage. So. Probably in some instances, you know, we’ve heard of accidents pressure cookers
even cooking right every now and then something happens and you’ll hear from the in fact just last year.
My wife’s Grandma had an accident in the pressure cooker and I don’t like a lot of burns as a result. So, you know these things that happen occasionally, they also have an industry so reactors and Industry that are pressurized and heated also ex- plode go off and there’s a significant safety.
Associated with that so voltage can be a much safer way of driving those reactions. The [00:28:00] other sort of benefit is that you can run reactions at smaller scales. So rather than building a plant that cost 1 to 3 billion dollars. That’s how much a lot of chemical plants cost today. You can replace that with a much smaller amount of capacity.
And incrementally add on capacity as you go and that’s something that an electro- chemical process a voltage driven process allows you to do more easily. So this is sort of the chemical manufacturing of the future. It won’t be done in a decentral- ized fashion. We believe it will instead be done.
Close to where one wants to use this chemicals and materials. So in the same way that 3D printing is really getting a lot of traction that I can make Parts close to where we need them soon as I might actually be making the resins and all those materials and chemicals that we need close to where we need them as well.
Also distributed manufacturing is going to continue to become something and elec- trochemistry or [00:29:00] voltage is a big part of enabling that to occur.
Madhav: [00:29:03] Got a gun. I have to follow up questions on that one is the metaphors. How do you pick up these metaphors that you come out with like insta part of industry and like this is so powerful like they make it so simple and yet I can understand what you’re talking about.
Even though I don’t know the domain is metaphors part of your teaching methodol- ogy because so impressive how you can explain a complex Concept in a simple way.
Karthish: [00:29:30] I think a lot of it actually comes to my mom. My mom is the one who speaks like in very plain language. So I think my mom is just like you can be very clear and honest and has an ability like very complex situations defined like the distilled components of that and that is something that I think I try to carry with myself.
And conversely my was also very conversational person. She’s the outgoing person that feel like everyone else is [00:30:00] somewhere on that spectrum of being somewhere between introverted and extroverted. My mom is that person who like really wants to communicate with people and share with them things that she un- derstands and knows and bring them in but she’s someone who thinks in that way right of how do you bring something down?
Madhav: [00:30:17] I mean unless you really understand it. You’re not able to ex- plain it. That easily right? I think that’s a it’s a beautiful characteristic of a good teacher. I guess the second question followed by had based on what you talking about earlier was electricity and the double A battery if it was that simple or not simple hurry, if it was that obvious.
Why hasn’t it been done? And what is the hurdle right like
Karthish: [00:30:42] what? This is the critical question that you hone in on. So it turns out that the ability to run chemical reactions using electricity is something that goes back to the mid-1800s. So the very earliest work on some of the earliest work on organic synthesis [00:31:00] and learning how to make more complex or- ganic molecules actually involved electrochemistry.
There were in fact Departments of organic chemistry and electrochemistry. They were jointly named as such in the early days of this field in the decades that fol- lowed organic synthesis started involving less and less electricity and instead start- ed use temperature pressure more advanced reagents.
These other methods became more viable at scale for making things that humanity and civilization needed and we’re now in a different era. What’s happening now is that electricity renewable electricity is becoming cheaper and cheaper and it’s the cost of those renewable electrons that’s changing everything and our desire to be sustainable.
So if we were okay with using temperature and pressure, which actually often also generates large carbon dioxide Footprints, [00:32:00] we would be okay with the way that we make chemicals today. But there’s a clear driver in terms of reducing electricity costs and a desire to decarbonized chemical production right to remove that CO2 footprint.
That’s motivating a Resurgence of these Technologies. We also have so many more tools now that they didn’t have in the mid-1800s for understanding the chemistry for another there have been such Revolutions in electronics right that make it easi- er to control electricity and use it in a productive manner.
So we’re very much leveraging so many things that have happened since some of those earliest realizations for new chemistries that were down now developing.
Madhav: [00:32:42] Okay, got it. Got it. Got it. It’s sort of similar to if I were to put it like you mean in terms of what’s happening in the Tesla space or the electric car space where you know, we were so reliant on the oil and gas but then we sort of slowly [00:33:00] moving away from that into electric based cars and transporta- tion methodologies.
Karthish: [00:33:05] Yeah. It’s a remarkable story. I think to think about how that happened. So much early scientific work in the 70s and 80s. My dad was actually very involved in the really work on lithium ion batteries going back in the early days back before it was a popular topic when it was hard to get funding for these topics because no one understood, you know, what is this fundamental science go- ing to be good work?
And so he had a lot of contributions in the area that are things that we now. Carry in our pockets that we now drive and who but I think the important thing to see in that is. Those early discoveries when they were first commercialized by Sony I think in 1991 there was not a clear idea of how big this would eventually be right there thinking.
Okay. This could be an interesting battery for a camcorder or for a photo camera [00:34:00] and they weren’t thinking that this would someday become. Something that’s an electric vehicles that’s used for a grid scale energy storage right that same lithium-ion battery could find application and be what saves us from global warm- ing right some ways, right?
That was something that wasn’t even conceptualized but that then took another 30 years writer 20 to 30 years to start to become something that was commercially viable in a much. Wider range of technology. So yeah, that’s really timescale that fundamental science takes to go from laboratory to having impact and something similar will probably be true for electrifying chemical synthesis as well that we’ll start to see small realizations of in the next decade.
Many will be skeptical because the economics are small make sense. But as time passes in decades past we continue down the cost curve and Things become more economical and so we have to always try to place ourselves in such a way that we’re seeing the world in the [00:35:00] future that we’re developing things for the future world.
Without being constrained by what feels like is possible today and that requires the sometimes kind of freeing yourself from things that we’ve heard a million times to say, you know what I can see the world being different and because of that I think this could work and it’s hard to do but its necessary.
Madhav: [00:35:17] Yeah. Yeah makes perfect sense on time, you know on the topic of freeing ourselves from our. current mindset in some ways and trying to see the future. I had a question on that in terms of like how do you clear your mind? I be- lieve for for research and for probably anything to get. Somewhere, you know, I guess you are you have any tactics or tips or things that you do to clear your mind to do the kind of research you need to be doing thinking about the future not in- stant gratification or overnight results.
Karthish: [00:35:54] absolutely yeah, this is something that my mom is the best in the world. So she won’t show any [00:36:00] time like, you know as a kid something to worry me. She would say. You know one of my brother right there just like, you know, don’t don’t fear right there’s nothing to fear. Right you just like why do you care like you did it doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work, but it’s a matter of like right and so, you know, it’s a mentality that really enables risk-taking and when you realize that you’re not defined. Bye how something that you try to do as to how it goes, right? So interesting. Yeah that’s easier to take risk when you know that you are who you are and we often say that we are defined by our work right that it’s a good thing to be defined by these things that you do and there’s some truth to that, right?
You know, it’s good to take that Pride, but we shouldn’t let our work Define us right at the same time. Right? We should Define our work and not not the inverse process, hopefully and yeah that can be liberating right that you know, we can take big risks and try to have an enormous impact. [00:37:00] Knowing that there’s a
good chance that will fail in doing so right this this Vision electrified synthesis is such a different world, right?
It looks nothing like the world that we live in today that we would just be taking air and water and electricity and somehow that would make all the chemicals and materials that we need. It sounds like science fiction almost right? Yeah, but we pursue it knowing that hey look there’s a good chance.
I might fail but it’s better to feel having tried to change the world. Then then to succeed not having tried
Madhav: [00:37:30] kind of comes Karthish: [00:37:31] back to
Madhav: [00:37:34] and what part of this is like, I think dreaming and because I think you talked about somewhere we dream about catalysts and the way and the way they dance with molecules.
Karthish: [00:37:45] Yeah, what
Madhav: [00:37:46] part of this is your research or you were is dreaming versus
Karthish: [00:37:50] doing? Yeah dreaming is a very critical part of. I think my sometimes my favorite weekend. This is my wife finds me very [00:38:00] funny is that I like just put a blank piece of paper in front of me and just start sketching with nothing else in it.
And I call this getting lost in my own thoughts. What is it also doesn’t make sense to researching very odd thing to do is just kind of want to like, you know, shut the door and just think right and then like your dad’s kind of run away. As you’re explor- ing Concepts and it’s just a lot of fun being able to do that.
And I think that that open-minded sort of exploratory thinking where you feel somewhat and unconstrained is important for Big Picture Vision at the same time though. We have to show that we can get things done and put those Concepts into practice and. One can motivate people Envision for some period of time but even- tually they’ll want to see results and tangible things that they can believe in and so we have to always be pushing on both right changing the vision and improving the vision based on the latest [00:39:00] factual concrete things that we know and then changing what we do on a daily basis with the experiments in the lab.
I base now that vision is not altered. So there’s a one has to be able to push on both of those to really succeed in doing the science. Yeah,
Madhav: [00:39:18] and taking that small bit of tidbit you talked about like seeing the results. I mean when you see something you say it’s working or not working and you go back and try something else and that is that’s my version of chemistry lab in my school.
But if I were to ask you like taking that Africa example example, you gave me ear- lier on like, you know, Can you describe the guy before and after if a farmer grow- ing rice in Africa, like what is the world today? And what do you see with if the technology that you’re working on? Actually pans out and really we’re not scalable.
Karthish: [00:39:59] Yeah, [00:40:00] definitely. So for the average farmer in sub- Saharan Africa, they find that it’s very difficult to get high crop yields per unit area of land because in part they under fertilize their land and that’s because. Fertilizer prices in sub-Saharan Africa are between two to four times that the rest of the world.
It’s surprising right one would think you know, why not just bring in these fertilizers bring him into the ports and passed them out and and solve this problem, but it turns out the distribution of the fertilizer. Is intrinsically expensive because there’s no infrastructure for distribution. So this is a failure of centralized governments to do well for their people and it’s in some ways one can’t blame them because they’re trying to solve short-term problems either people who are starving they want to solve that and it’s hard them to make the long term.
Investments in roads [00:41:00] and pipelines and Trucking and Port infrastructure Etc that enables you to cheaply move Goods around that’s something that a lot of the rest of the world is able to do pretty effectively. So even though you can get the fertilizers to the port getting them from the port to the farmer add so much cost to the final.
And that’s what we want to change so you can imagine a device that you connect to a solar panel which is present locally and that device needs to breathe air. And I need to take in water. It can take the nitrogen from the air and hydrogen from wa- ter and combine those to make NH3. So that’s ammonia and that ammonia then is this one of these key ingredients of fertilizer?
That can be made right there locally. So one can move past the conventional supply chain and overcome failures and infrastructure by doing this sort of approach so that could conceivably lead to cheaper fertilizers, [00:42:00] but the key part right now is that. The system that one would deploy today would still be too expensive and that’s where the research really comes in is figuring out how can we make this device work faster?
And how can we make the components of it cheaper? How can we give it more longevity so that it will last long enough to successfully operate in the field right. Now. These are still small lab scale prototypes, which of. Undergone significant improvements in just the last two years since we started working on this sort of Technology, but there’s so many years ahead of us to get this to a place where it’s commercially viable and that’s where the fundamental science can continue to con- tribute to make this sort of vision a reality.
Madhav: [00:42:43] And working towards that making them faster cheaper do also work with industry partners that actually are doing something in the space as well because when for example companies that are actually manufacturing fertilizers [00:43:00] today. Yeah, you look at them as partners competitors are words the re- lationship there because they have the money they have the Deep
Karthish: [00:43:08] Pockets.
Yeah, we benefit a lot from these sorts of conversations. So we as lonely really ap- preciate. What about MIT is that. They really try to Foster connections with indus- try. So one good example of that is the MIT energy initiative. Even before I started
they help connect me to Industry without feeling that there’s some places where working with industry is seen as being a negative.
Because it is it. Oh, you’re you’re too applied or your thought process is polluted by profit motive or something. But the truth is that they have practical experience, right? They see how these things scale up. They know how it behaves in the real world and they weren’t so much from them. Right the the fundamental problems that we choose to solve.
Are informed by Real World Knowledge, and we have to bring together all these diverse stakeholders right [00:44:00] people who are in Industry policymakers peo- ple doing the fundamental science and academic lab and only if they all speak to each other can we accelerate the development and implementation of new tech- nology?
So this conversations have been very very helpful for us in terms of understanding. What we had poorly conceptualized what we thought our problems that really our problems. Yeah. Well, we should really be solving in this context
Madhav: [00:44:30] perfect guy. That’s that’s um, yeah refreshing to see that when I know at MIT, they’ve been always like I was part of a program that actually worked with.
Technology companies and helping their employers learn and educate themselves and get mbas and it messes and things like that there was an industry lies and pro- gram that has yeah my dad has always been that way and that’s amazing yeah be- cause like you said you are practical. Aspects of sometimes missed a few pure lie research oriented [00:45:00] in the lab.
Karthish: [00:45:00] Yeah, definitely. So Madhav: [00:45:05] another metaphor mom. This Karthish: [00:45:07] may be a complete tangent,
Madhav: [00:45:14] but I was curious like I was reading about the deli under lock- down for air pollution. And this is happening every almost every year and. We have this related to what you’re doing at all or I’m just curious like
Karthish: [00:45:30] yeah,
Madhav: [00:45:31] because what I learned was the cause of the smog was some crop burning in the neighboring state or something like that and I was wondering if some of the applications of what you’re working on might be able to.
Address these kind of challenges
Karthish: [00:45:42] Cinderella. Oh, yeah. So in many ways our Reliance on fossil fuels combined with ways in which we manage crops and other things that are more innocent in a way like putting a fireworks right [00:46:00] and things like that it there they all contribute to smog and evident pollution that we visibly see in big cities.
And these Technologies can definitely be a part of mitigating and reducing that so as an example, our group is developing ways in which you can generate fuels litter cleaner. So for instance ammonia is good not just as a fertilizer, but it could con- ceivably used as a fuel as well. So it has much more energy content you’re starting with nitrogen and water and you’re making a much more energetic molecule.
That if you were to then use that as a transportation fuel in some context that could help to eliminate the smog that’s produced when the fuel is combusted be- cause when you combust ammonia, you make just nitrogen and water as end prod- ucts now, there’s still challenges because ammonia is corrosive.
Do you really want to be handling that as a consumer outside the context of farm- ing or another areas, right? So they’re many questions [00:47:00] surrounding that. But there are ways in which for instance as coal-fired power plants, you know going in the future become less common. Even natural gas combined cycle power plants will probably at some point start to become less common.
And at that point the technologies that we’re developing whereby you can take a renewable electron from solar or wind react that use that to react as certain con- stituents of air and water to make a fuel that could be a much more sustainable Paradigm that in turn helps to limit the emissions that we
Madhav: [00:47:36] make.
Got it. I mean this sounds so I want to live in that world. I mean so
Karthish: [00:47:45] that we hope the day I retire or or something that you will be able to sit back and enjoy. You know, what? The world has achieved in that time frame. When I progress going to feel slow right sometimes your [00:48:00] periods of years where that Horizon feels like it’s getting further and then there’s rapid technological progress and roll up in a couple of years that are races what you, you know a decade of how long you thought it would take for something to become real.
So they’re definitely there’s this roller coaster ride at times the own. Yeah that one can experience.
Madhav: [00:48:19] Sometimes be slow and sometimes there might be dark mo- ment that sort of make you the Socratic method of questioning or what the hell am I doing? Yeah it do you have any such dark moments in your career so far very felt like what am I doing?
Karthish: [00:48:40] It’s in this is exceptionally important because one can paint a very Rosy picture right that that one sequentially is gone from doing one thing to another and there are no concerns along the way. I think it’s very common for peo- ple to sort of question what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
[00:49:00] But it’s less common for people to be open about the fact that you’re questioning those things, right? So they’re definitely things that we try to do here that make it easier to have those conversations. So, you know our group certainly spends time talking about like, you know, how do you do science while being happy doing science?
Right? So they’re definitely very broad issues surrounding graduate student happi- ness avoiding depression as a graduate student because this is often the first time in one’s life that you’re trying to solve a problem so difficult that you may fail for years. Trying to do it. Where is in classes that we take and other experiences sur- rounding education before that?
We’ve usually, you know, if we’re doing poorly in a class. Well, at least it’s over at some point, right? You can somehow put it behind you and be done those research this problem kind of chases you like you keep trying and keep trying different things and before you know, it it’s been a semester.
It’s been a year. It’s been two years and that can sometimes cause one [00:50:00] to look at their work and they get my doing something wrong, right? And I remember this is a graduate student myself, right? There was a. Period of time where I was tackling what I thought were very very risky problem and something that was tough to solve and it you know, I dreamed of this big vision and that I wanted to achieve and.
Yeah, I remember thinking like a year later. Wow, like I’ve gotten nowhere like is this because I’m not a good scientist, right? And you won’t you wonder at this mo- ment is right, and I am very thankful that. And I was surrounded by my parents and sister and also surrounded by a very good friends.
They admitted that point graduate school who helped me kind of see that know, you’re working on something tough. And that’s okay and just to laugh right? You know, there’s the laugh at it right away. It’s very liberating to it’s a laugh at our failures. Yeah, when you when you start to see [00:51:00] the comedy in it and life becomes better, right and.
That anything that feels frustrating to the extent that we can recast it in a way that we can find the humor in it and that can be very helpful. But that conversa- tion doesn’t always happen. Right? I think for many when they face that moment where they’ve been trying something for a year or two.
Start to give up and they start to feel exasperated. They don’t want to keep going and it’s unfortunate because that’s often because they haven’t built around them the social structure that they need to support them in that endeavor. And but you can’t but I can one can also to say that it’s not them having built it right, you know, my social structure isn’t something that I built.
It came to me. I happen to say I was born right in many ways.
Madhav: [00:51:52] There’s definitely some part of luck and Destiny in that as well for sure.
Karthish: [00:51:55] Absolutely, and I think the sooner we realize it that [00:52:00] there are big differences in kind of what we start with and life right the more em- pathy that we get out of that for someone who is struggling.
Right weather every one of my neighbors wants a few years ago told me a story about his own dad who was a teacher and his dad was a teacher. He felt that any student who wasn’t doing. Well, it was either dumb or lazy and that was his his per- spective on it. And you know, I won sometimes sees that in education right that you
know, it’s hard to empathize with someone who’s struggling with and they want me realize.
That struggle has so many dimensions to it on a given day right that struggle at a time in one’s life can be just because it come kind of stuff is hard or it can be be- cause of other things happening in our lives of the time it can be because we didn’t have a certain degree of support and privilege and certain things that we came into right.
[00:53:00] Just reminds us that when I only thing is when we ourselves go through a difficult time do we then gain that empathy to make sure that we view others in thats realize others that benefit of the doubt and and help them through that without even knowing that maybe they’re going through something difficult.
We don’t always talk about the difficult things going on in our lives, but at least we can without even knowing it still say, you know what it doesn’t matter whether it whether there is something going on or not. We should just be kind in that way right? No matter what we do. Thank
Madhav: [00:53:29] you. That was that was super super helpful for me.
I absolutely I think it’s having the conversation having the people around opening up about it. And and and yeah putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Some- times it’s hard but trying to see where they may be coming from. And not making assumptions of statements that they’re lazy or dumb.
Karthish: [00:53:57] Absolutely. Yes. That’s
Madhav: [00:53:59] pretty neat [00:54:00] Carthage. I know we are coming on top of timer just couple of quick questions one is around. I think I saw this on your Tweet art should comfort the Disturbed in the disturbing comfortable. Yeah, that was really cool. I do heart and I’ve been drawing and painting ever all my life since I was a six-year-old and it just caught my attention and I said yeah.
Yeah because I love doing art that actually makes people. Pink and pink with a dif- ferent lens.
Karthish: [00:54:33] Yeah,
Madhav: [00:54:34] what’s your perspective on this code that you put like Arch
Karthish: [00:54:39] I was going on a run one day on the Charles River and I saw this quote and it. It just captured Like You Know It capture for me not just art but it captured and capture the most expansive definition of art art being almost any- thing that we touched you in science is Art and exactly right?
We’re trying to find meaning in the world [00:55:00] and convey that meaning to someone right off in a visual form. That’s how we share a lot of our data, right? This notion of that if our work doesn’t somehow surprised us or disturb. I take Loosely in this layer, right? You should disturb us. It should break us out of what we’re used to come from.
It should change the way we think that’s why I’ve always liked the Apple One trap, I think different right? It’s just so very true. It’s better to do something different than it is to do something. That’s known to work. And get it. Yeah that that is been important to me. So like are my our own wedding this summer.
I was like very much an experiment in that in the sense that lie we tried to flip everything upside down all the way from the way we do the invitations, you know, we did it like a presidential campaign announcement.
Madhav: [00:55:48] Just I saw the whole website with the approve this message.
Karthish: [00:55:52] And you know, there’s always a risk in doing the right at the message could really fall flat right of people have an expectation of [00:56:00] what a wedding invitation should look like then it should be Regal and be for Mana cards and there’s a certain way that it should look great and.
But taking that risk and even if it doesn’t go as well, at least you try to do some- thing different process, right? So, you know, we did some videography for the wed- ding like building a trailer for it and try and tell our story and this these are funny sort of ways in which. One can try to gain some enjoyment in life and takes an ille- gal wedding which sometimes can be very stressful.
Right and just by looking at it differently and trying to kind of shake up the stan- dards and expectations and and kind of turn everything upside down. That one can make it more enjoyable in the process, right? Yeah and bring it here. Bring it even more meaning in that form.
Madhav: [00:56:52] Yeah. Yeah, it’s it’s a it’s a great thing.
You said. I mean, I think everybody should listening should take away that one [00:57:00] lesson like try something new something it’s better to do something dif- ferent than to settle. The so-called wisdom
Karthish: [00:57:07] of
Madhav: [00:57:09] the crowds just a couple of Rapid Fire questions and you don’t have to answer them rapidly. But yeah, just really again trying to understand or learn from what you’ve gained your life experiences.
Any particular books that come to your mind that you’ve gifted a lot or that you’ve learned from.
Karthish: [00:57:28] Good question. So growing up in this book The Count of Monte Cristo is like I think my favorite there’s something with the complexity of the tail the way in which so many unexpected things happen and all the mystery of it that you know, I’m not sure why I like it so much but but I do think that the fact that it has a lot of layers of complexity.
That’s something I like a lot in storytelling. And
Madhav: [00:57:57] talking of books. Have you? Do you like [00:58:00] do you have you written much at all? Or
Karthish: [00:58:02] yes a poetry is something that I do. So this is a these are my earliest attempts to like went over. My wife was writing her poetry actually so their
Madhav: [00:58:14] new succeeded at it.
Karthish: [00:58:16] It’s about work it somehow when I thought it wasn’t working at the very beginning at 4:00 in terms of me convincing her to go out with me then I do nothing to do but to pick up a pen and so some of it is just silly. And it’s just re- ally desire to find you with poetry. I like for some reason just the rhythm of it and the writing of it that’s where I found like the most continuing satisfaction and writ- ing.
Madhav: [00:58:43] Yeah. I’m talking of writing if you could write anything on a full moon that the world can see what would you write?
Karthish: [00:58:53] I would I would like more time to write poetry for family. I think I just think there’s so much to be [00:59:00] told about like the stories of our ancestors that are very easily lost. I think at least in Indian culture.
A lot of this is word-of-mouth and we haven’t always recorded as much of our fami- ly history. And I think we’re in that Delta generation right where a lot is changing in one generation and a lot of stories are getting lost in the process. So if I if I had time more time to write I would be writing more about like whatever, you know, we can we can pick up and still put together but we knew about four or five gener- ations ago right there all these stories and Grandma used to tell my dad and mom luckily.
Remember a lot of these things. This is our grandparents passed away. A lot of the knowledge is now kind of at risk of Disappearing right if we. Make something of it but poetry is a neat way to express it. I think another way is just you know video documentaries of family history and try to like find the beams and the meaning and it all so that I’ve been meaning or intending to do but haven’t found the time to ac- tually do some kind of writing kind of the family history Now and Google Docs doc- ument.
Oh neat, I record as much of [01:00:00] this as I can and find the themes with the hope someday of transforming this into something. So, I hope that that continues reading broadly is something. The Indian Community needs to really make sure that we don’t lose in this Delta generation that we have right so much is changing but we shouldn’t lose all the old lessons and stories that we have embedded in our in
Madhav: [01:00:17] our laundry.
Yeah, super powerful is very very cool. Love it. Love it. Knowing what you know
now. What would you advise your young teenage
Karthish: [01:00:27] self? I think looking back. You know, I think I’m very happy now looking back knowing that all that hard work. I put in like led to something that I’m very happy with now and this is my wife and I often talk about her or different un- dergraduate experiences.
I feel like. Outside of eating meals. I was [01:01:00] always laboring away at some- thing that I loved that was work related in some way right either studying a text- book or going to look at the laboratory that I worked in the like really push these experiments that I was excited about and I’m very lucky that I had a group of friends that.
That through lunch and dinner and those experiences like we really stuck together, but I can also see how I whites experience is not a ride where I think she really got to know like a much larger group of people and you know valued sort of that social experience even more. That that has empowered her in many ways as as well.
So I think in some ways I want to kind of mix our experiences right? I think I would still probably almost do what I did. But I would even more value that time that I had with people during the undergraduate years. That’s something that I don’t need an even going back before that writing. There’s probably more ways that I could have.
I spent more time with family and India, especially before a grandparents passed away and all those. Yeah, [01:02:00] those are things that I can’t go back now and do but if I could go back and tell myself to spend more time with people. I’m going to tell you people. Yeah
Madhav: [01:02:11] super powerful and lastly if people want to connect with you learn more about your work and we are going what’s the best way to connect with
Karthish: [01:02:20] you.
Yeah, so that our website month theorem that mit.edu is like a really good starting point for starting to learn about things that were interested but my contact infor- mation is on there as well. So if anyone wants to reach out can find my email ad- dress on their cut the shit mit.edu and reach out.
Madhav: [01:02:40] Awesome. Thanks so much Carthage really appreciated and en- joyed the conversation.
Karthish: [01:02:44] Awesome. Thank you. This is the best thought of fun kind of learning about your oneself through the process of talking about it, right? So it’s neat when a conversation like this kind of helps you recognize something that you should that you should do differently or or even looking back and [01:03:00] and seeing some clarity and kind of the like that one is had.