The buzz around climate change is impossible to ignore these days; many people have heard about the emerging electric car and alternative energy industries. Maybe they’ve heard about reducing animal products and learning about fast fashion, but the world of negative emissions technologies (NETs) is still quite undiscovered. The NET Project at UT Austin’s founder and president, Vishrudh Sriramprasad, was born in India and raised in Round Rock, TX, but it was in southwestern Canada that he first learned about the NET space. During a fateful summer hike he saw a Carbon Engineering billboard which advertised sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Like many of us, he wondered, how could such an obvious solution exist? Vishrudh remarked that, “Looking back across where we started and where we are now, I think that’s a unique perspective that I and few other people have. Just kind of seeing how far it’s come based on all of our hard work is definitely very cool.” Now, barely a year after this organization’s first meeting, NET Project has three projects and over 50 members who are excited about carbon removal.
Vishrudh had about 4 years of research in aerospace engineering and medical devices, but after a few months independently learning about NETs, he entered his junior year of college wanting to start research in this new field. After having trouble finding a professor interested in this area or with available time, he consulted a graduate friend who suggested Vishrudh start his own club or research team. Ironically, Vishrudh dismissed this idea immediately. However, later he stumbled upon UT’s Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) organization, tabling outside an engineering building, which provided the platform for him to start his own project. At one of their meetings, he said something along the lines of, “There’s this cool field called negative emissions technology and I don’t know a lot about it but… if you want to help me figure out what we can do about it then that’d be awesome.” Reflecting on this, Vishrudh chuckled, “As pitches go, that’s a pretty bad pitch.” He also talked to freshmen mechanical engineering classes and posted flyers around campus. About ten people contacted him, five attended an info meeting, and three decided they wanted to commit time to it. Over winter break he started piecing together the next steps for his new group.
On February 4, 2020, Vishrudh hosted the first official meeting of the NET Project. They started with independent reading of NET literature followed by discussions and presentations about what they’d learned. Dr. Matthew Hall agreed to be their on-campus advisor but Vishrudh also wanted someone already involved in the field. He turned to a 400+ page research report on NETs that the National Academy of Sciences had published and emailed every professor who was listed as an author. Five people replied but were too busy, three were willing to chat, and one professor was both enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge with students and willing to work with them: UC Berkeley’s Dr. Daniel Sanchez. But after their first couple of meetings, COVID-19 shut UT down, forcing the organization to move online.
By this point, Vishrudh was ready to move from just learning about the field to actually getting involved with research projects. He focused on direct air capture (DAC) research and started to work with Energy Futures Initiatives (EFI), two projects that are still ongoing and now joined by the policy project. Vishrudh originally planned to have a small group that could research closely together and assumed that most of the 17 members who had joined over the spring semester would decide not to commit further. When summer arrived, he still had 17 members. At this point, Vishrudh decided to change his perspective from, “Let me get five people that are really interested in this to do something cool” to “let me try to get as many people as possible on campus exposed to the field.” After a tiring summer during which he was the only point of contact, Vishrudh focused on ways to grow the organization, make it more effective, and create a new structure. For the fall semester of 2020, he developed a leadership team and decided to separate general meetings from project meetings. General meetings were open to the public and focused on educating anyone and everyone more about NETs. He invited researchers, entrepreneurs, policy advisors, and more to speak. Vishrudh mused that seeing 26 people in the first general meeting zoom of the semester “was… special.”
So, what’s next? As a senior mechanical engineering student, Vishrudh has applied to graduate school and some start-ups and is waiting to see where his options lead him. He explained that the field needs a combination of commercialization, research, and policy and that he wants to be a part of all three, focusing on optimizing DAC solutions. Additionally, he feels that it’s important to responsibly educate the public and make sure people know that “carbon removal is not an opt-out for fossil-fuel companies.” Last semester Vishrudh also extended his influence past UT after meeting three other college students through AirMiners, a professional online carbon emission community. The four of them co-founded a similar community called Carbon Visions to create a more casual place for young people who are interested or already in the field. It has connected people from across the country with a variety of interests related to carbon removal.
The Negative Emissions Technology Project is still developing and it’s a trial-and-error process. While Vishrudh is the president, he did not start knowing how to be a ‘president’. “I’m not the smartest person you know; I’m definitely not the most driven person you know; I’m definitely not the best at public speaking or the best at planning. I didn’t have any particular special qualities that allowed me to start an organization. You just start with something very small… and see where it goes,” he divulged. He encourages anyone who is interested in a particular topic and doesn’t find what they’re looking for to start something themselves. When building an organization, he recommends to keep focusing on what you want to do next, which becomes easier since “it’s something that comes organically from within you.” The NET field is small right now but rising in prominence as important people and big companies are starting to realize that we need carbon removal. Vishrudh thinks it will be an essential part of the next ten years, and the next ten after that. It will require a lot of work from young people and Vishrudh is passionate about getting them involved. Now, thanks to his efforts, UT students have a place to learn and work in this significant field.