Synopsis and Introduction
In the past couple of years, the buzz around Negative Emission Technologies has rapidly increased. Their rising popularity can be attributed to federal and private funding, and the implementation of policies all around the world to support them. As this technology has become more widespread, the NET Project has been able to watch it all unfold—something that makes leading this organization so unique.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Ben Evanson to talk with him about his experience as the project’s president these past two years. Ben is a fourth-year mechanical engineering and Plan II double major from San Antonio whose catchphrase has become “Love da NETs.” He took over the project starting the Summer of 2021 after Vish, the founder of the project, graduated. If you’ve ever had a chance to interact with him during a meeting, on speedway, or elsewhere, you know that he is one of the friendliest and most enthusiastic people, especially when it comes to this project. Through his effort, this project has continued to reach a wider audience and has been able to accomplish amazing things. Ben recounts learning about climate change at a very young age and thinking that he was going to grow up to be a chemist. “I just thought, there has to be some sort of chemical reaction that gets CO2 out of the air.” After a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend asked him if would be interested in joining a new, small environmental organization (the NETP), Ben had this “Aha!” moment that changed the course of his life.
During this interview, Ben voices his hope to help people have this same “Aha!” moment, he reminisces on his proudest moments these past two years, and describes how this project has helped him grow personally and professionally.
Question 1: You took over this project right around when life was starting to go back to normal. How was this ‘post-covid’ transition for you, particularly as the leader of this organization? What were the most challenging aspects of it and what did you learn from it?
Ben: When we were online, it was very much a ‘read an article and present it to everyone’ deal. It was fun but wouldn’t have reached a wide audience because we were just reading long scientific articles. We had a very small group of people who all enjoyed reading articles, and they’re a bunch of quiet engineers pretty exclusively. We didn’t even have a policy project until the last semester when Vish was still president!
Sara: Was the project primarily DAC then?
Ben: Yes? Kind of. I don’t really remember when we had a split, because at first it was just straight articles, and then we split into the DAC and Policy Project. It [the organization] started off really small and not really available for a lot of people, so it was definitely a lot of Micky (the project’s Vice-President, be on the lookout for his interview coming out soon!) and I just sitting around that summer asking ‘How do we vamp up the website?’ ‘How do we make it so that a ton of people have access to the org’ and ‘How do we recruit and start talking to people about it?’ Then, it became an in-person organization, and it felt natural to do that–especially building stuff. It was really cool to see everyone in person.
The first couple of weeks of the project were right before covid happened, so I had about two in-person meetings. There were eight of us in a room talking about some paper because we didn’t know what NETs were and we didn’t know who could teach us. At the time, there was really nothing out there about NETs. Now, you have your CDR Primer and others, but…
Sara: You’ve grown up with NETs then.
Ben: Yeah! We’ve grown with it growing up itself, which has been super cool. The NET Project started right as NETs really started coming out. They’ve been around since the 50s or 40s, but I’m talking about when they became popularized.
Question 2: You are a MechE and Plan II double major, one of them being more focused on Liberal Arts and the other being more technical. Usually, there tends to be a separation between science and the humanities, particularly with emerging technologies such as NETs. Being able to study and see both sides of it, what has this taught you about how we should approach NETs and how we should implement them as they continue to grow?
Ben: I always joke about how I don’t know what the intersection between Plan II and engineering is, so my joke response tends to be ‘Oh, it’s just being a really ethical engineer’, but I think that’s actually true. Having the technical and Plan II background, what they help with the most is just finding links between things that I’m being taught. I always find parallels between different things, and I’m always thinking: ‘How can I bring environmentalism into this?’.
The example I’m thinking of is Max Weber, the first professor of sociology in Western thought. He was like ‘this is what makes a bureaucracy, this is why it is, and this is why it’s so resilient to change’, and I made this tie that there’s this entirely massive and immovable bureaucracy of oil and gas industry that has implemented itself within governments around the world and is necessary for the daily life of human beings, and so I realized just how massive and powerful this bureaucracy is. One of the things about a bureaucracy is that you can’t break it or get rid of it–it’s really strong. It’s hard to get rid of that structure once it’s already entrenched because people will just continue to perpetuate it. I had this moment where I was like ‘Oh, maybe that’s why carbon capture is such a necessary industry to grow up and create its own bureaucracy, just because it’s easier to create a new bureaucracy as opposed to tearing down an old one, and change the leadership within a bureaucracy because it’s always going to be shaded towards whatever it was built to be originally.’ I think overall, it is helpful for the nuance, which is all that NETs are.
Question 3: What have you learned from your interaction with people who are already in this space (i.e Chris Neidl, Dahl Winters, previous presenters, etc)? Do they give you hope for what’s coming next for NETs? What has come out of these interactions?
Ben: Everyone I’ve ever met within the NET space, or just the environmental technical space, is awesome. They’re the coolest people in the world. Also, the people who are engineers and are now involved in policy stuff–wicked cool people. Maybe that’s also who I am, and that’s why I think that they’re cool people, but they’re always just so nice and totally give you so much hope. They’re all nuts in the best way and they make me so hopeful. I just wish there were more people like them.
Question 4: What are two things happening in the NET Project this year that you are looking forward to?
Ben: Happening next semester, I’m excited for Business NETs to do startup stuff. I’m stoked about that.
Sara: Is it going to be a sort of entrepreneurship project?
Ben: Yes! It is so important for entrepreneurship to happen in the NET space, especially because, again, it is brand new. All it is is entrepreneurs at the moment— those are the only people in this space. There’s no established industry, really. Also personally, I would love to start a business or work for a friend who starts one.
Also, one of the things right now that is very exciting is that we’re switching up the sorbent for the DAC team. We are using a MOF now instead of zeolites. Zeolites were never gonna work that well, they just love water too much.
Question 5: What has been the proudest moment that you’ve had in the past two years leading this project? What has it been like to see this project grow and continue to develop over the last couple of years?
Ben: It’s hard to give a specific moment because I’m just proud of the project in general. The times that I am most proud are after a meeting. It also makes me really proud whenever anything happens that I didn’t direct, particularly within the policy and DAC team. That makes me so wonderfully happy. Also, the org having a life of its own.
I think I will be most proud whenever I give it off to someone and they continue it. When I see that this project is still going, that will be very cool.
Question 6: Has this project changed your post-college plans? What do you hope to do after you graduate? Has this project steered you in a particular direction?
Ben: Absolutely. I mean, I didn’t know NETs existed, and then I was like ‘this is what I’ve always wanted to do with my life; therefore I am now going to try to do that with my life.’ The new thing will be trying to start a company. I’m jazzed about that.
Sara: Do you think that you will go to graduate school to get your MBA or another degree?
Ben: Maybe? I don’t know yet. I love inventing, creating, and building things. I think this is also an engineer thing–we love having people tell us ‘this is a problem, go fix it.’ That’s a ton of fun and I can see myself doing that for the rest of my life as well. Doing the NET Project has made me realize that ‘yes I can make something. I can do this.’ I think I’m also OK at speaking, and not using that skill would be me not utilizing my abilities to the highest potential. This org has inspired me to do more and try harder.
Question 7: Do you have any book or podcast recommendations?
Ben: Reversing Climate Change by Nori is a pretty good one. The Daily is a New York Times podcast that features environmental pieces every once in a while. I can’t really recommend this book because I haven’t read it, but it’s called Drawdown and it’s by Paul Hawken. It’s literally a book about every single NET ever/every technology ever that’s climate-tech related. It’s really expansive. I’ve only read the first five pages, and I do recommend those. I’ve also read The Water Will Come by Jeff Goddell, it was pretty good if you want to learn more about what’s going on with Florida and Venice. I will also mention that I went on the Law Journal Podcast and I was their first guest! (you can listen to it on Spotify here–I really recommend it!!)
The Negative Emissions Technology Project has been able to get the conversation around NETs going on UT campus, but it hasn’t stopped there. The DAC project placed at the Carbon Removal Challenge last year (a nationwide competition about all that is Direct Air Capture), putting a spotlight on the project, and has been preparing for that again this year. The Policy project has continued to work with the on-campus power plant director to push for the implementation of carbon-capture technology, along with preparing for the first of many “Citizen Advocacy Day,”’ in which students will learn how to become better environmental advocates. When I asked Ben what his personal goal for the remainder of this project was, he said “I want people to make friends with the person they’re sitting next to.” Although he isn’t sure if this goal is partly due to Chris Neidl’s approach to grassroot movements and how they’re what’s going to change the world, Ben concluded this thought by stating that creating friendships because of environmentalism is powerful, and he hopes that this project is able to create them.