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Gigaton scale requires solving atomic problems

January 20, 2022

Getting to gigaton scale carbon removal by 2030 means lots of new ideas need to get imagined, prototyped, and scaled in the next 8 years. (this is a long message here's the video)

We need about 100 new companies this year and ever year getting to the point where they have a prototype to test out. And for every one, getting to that prototype stage means answering hard questions like "where do you get your carbon from?", "what do you do with the carbon?", and "how do you sell carbon removal credits?".

Our ability to succeed is defined by how fast we get at answering these questions. I was talking earlier this week with John Sanchez about how we could do this broadly across so many different types of questions. John came up with this term called "atomic problems".

A problem is an atomic problem if:

After our chat John wrote an article about atomic problems, check it out here to dig more into the details: Atomic Problems and Gigaton-Scale Thinking.

Here's an example of an atomic problem. Think about a biochar company. They have a nifty machine that takes in wood chips and turns it into biochar that farmers can use to grow better crops. This biochar company has a deal with a local supplier to provide them with truckloads of wood chips to make into biochar.

The thing is, every biochar company out there needs to get these deals for wood chips, corn stalks, rice husks, and other biomass. "Getting gigatons of biomass" is an atomic problem for biochar companies to get to gigaton scale carbon removal. Every biochar company will need to do it, it's a tricky problem because you have to go to each supplier one by one, and it's a unique problem to carbon removal because how many other industries are trying to go buy up gigatons of wood chips?

There are atomic problems in every sector of carbon removal, from biochar to direct air capture to ocean carbon removal.

The thing is, if you can help solve these atomic problems then you can make it your job, your consultancy, or your career. If the problem is big enough, you can even create the next big startup in carbon removal to solve it. Imagine if someone started a company that just tried to solve the atomic problem of how direct air capture companies transport and store gigatons of carbon dioxide gas!

Unsolved atomic problems are all around us in carbon removal. Here's two examples from AirMiners Slack just this week.

1. A third party to verify that your process is carbon negative. This came out of a discussion on the #xprize slack. To get to gigaton scale carbon removal we'll need on the order of thousands of these third party verifications to happen. This isn't just for the XPRIZE application today, but to sell carbon removal credits to Stripe, Shopify, and Microsoft and all buyers beyond. The future "NASDAQ of carbon removal" selling gigatons of carbon removal every year will need third party verification for every new listing. This could be your future career, consultancy, or startup. If you want to rock it at third party verification, hop on this thread on the #xprize channel on AirMiners Slack.

2. Specialized equipment: I got a private message about how to find a particular piece of equipment for testing a new carbon removal method. It's important for an entire sector of carbon removal, and every team in this sector is going to need a bunch of these. I won't get too much into details but the industry will need about 10,000 of these pieces of equipment. How do you solve that problem 10,000 times? Maybe somebody that starts a business renting them out, or redesigning cheaper ones, or something like that.

Now that we have this term "atomic problems", I'm seeing them everywhere. New problems require new solutions and ways of thinking, so I'm also inspired to dig more into design thinking too (thanks to the tip from Doug Solomon!)

AirMiners Launchpad itself is built around a few atomic problems. One example is "selling gigatons of carbon removal credits", "technoeconomic assessment" is another. We've reveiwed 354 startup concepts since we started AirMiners Launchpad. Nearly every team needs to do these two things to succeed so we help with that. If you need help selling carbon credits, or with your technoeconmic assessment, check out AirMiners Launchpad.

AirMiners Slack is also a useful tool for atomic problems like "how do I find a co-founder". AirMiners Slack's best use is likely as an "atomic problem discovery machine" because as we all talk and solve problems together we unearth new unknown atomic problems to solve. Be sure to apply at the AirMiners website if you want to work on atomic problems in carbon removal.

I'm going to keep using this term "atomic problems" and seeing how it unfolds.

Together let's speedrun atomic problems and unlock gigaton scale carbon removal.


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