At Carbon Engineering, we frequently hear from people interested in working in the Direct Air Capture industry and curious about what a pathway to a career in this field looks like. The short answer is that there is no one route; we have a large team with a rich diversity of career and life experiences. On that note, we’re pleased to launch a new series showcasing the trajectories of some of our team members. In this inaugural post, Ryan, a Mechanical Engineer (EIT) with a Ph.D. in Chemistry, shares his background and what led him to working on Direct Air Capture at Carbon Engineering.
As an 80’s kid, I have seen every David Attenborough-narrated nature program and all seasons of Bill Nye the Science Guy – both shows inspired me to conduct outrageous experiments that my parents regularly questioned. I disassembled vintage cathode ray TVs, VHS recorders, stereos, and practically anything I could carry down to the basement as an attempt to gain some insight into the internal workings of machines.
Upon enrolling at university, I quickly realized that having a broad interest and aptitude for learning makes for a difficult scenario when you are required to choose a specific major. I was up for the challenge, so I explored microbiology, zoology, physics, and astronomy – just to get my feet wet. It was not until I enrolled in a quantum chemistry course that I experienced my first “aha” moment and was able to apply my previous knowledge of quantum mechanics, physics, and chemistry, all in one subject. Eager to learn more, I reached out to the professor who taught the course and ended up earning a position working for him over the summer.
I finally completed my studies with a B.Sc. in Chemistry, an area I thought melded the best of both my passions: biology and physics. Upon graduation, I joined my quantum chemistry professor’s research group as a Ph.D. candidate. Graduate research was primarily focused on creating a theoretical model of laser-molecule interactions and control of a molecule’s rovibrational states for quantum computation. Some years later, I received my Ph.D. in Chemistry, specializing in quantum chemistry with applications in quantum computing.
While pursuing my Ph.D., I was fortunate to receive a national doctoral scholarship, and published three first author papers and two book chapters. After two years spent carrying out post-doctoral research in the United States, I had published three more papers, two of which were with other graduate students and focused on completely different research than my own. I believe the results of my Ph.D. and post-doctoral research granted me many opportunities back then and continue to do so today.
After graduating with my B.Sc. in Chemistry and going back to earn my Ph.D., I felt I had succeeded in diversifying my expertise in the subject, and yet I still wasn’t satisfying my deep-rooted interests in applied mechanics. I desired to utilize my intellect in a tangible way that made an impact. With the realization that I wanted a position where I could utilize all of my various expertise, I decided to make a dramatic change in my career – I went back to school to earn an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. Like my rationale for studying chemistry, I felt Mechanical Engineering was the most versatile out of all the engineering degrees.
Gaining applicable experience in any career is a must, and to achieve this, I was on the lookout for student groups and industrial work opportunities. I discovered an interest in sustainability and landed a role as the mechanical lead for a sustainability-focused student group. It was after this that I was accepted for an internship at Carbon Engineering.
I joined Carbon Engineering as an R&D prototype intern. For this position, I carried out test plans on benchtop scale versions of our major equipment with the unique opportunity to design and build the experimental setup. I originally planned for an 8-month co-op term, but I extended it to a 16-month expedition to better understand Carbon Engineering’s process, their company vision, and the engineering behind their Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology. After I graduated with my BA Sc. in Mechanical Engineering with Distinction, I was fortunate to return to Carbon Engineering.
Upon my return, I initially assisted with tasks related to the future Innovation Center, which will be CE’s permanent R&D and advanced development headquarters. My role primarily focused on reviewing and writing technical documentation for that center. Today, I oversee project communications for the Innovation Center and am involved in the acquisition, documentation and review of a calciner unit. The calciner is the third step of the DAC process in which we heat up calcium carbonate pellets to 900 degrees Celsius to release the carbon dioxide we captured from the air.
Most recently, I have joined the team working on Carbon Engineering’s first commercial DAC plant, which will be the world’s largest DAC plant, capable of capturing one million tons of carbon dioxide each year. As part of this team, I review and investigate mechanical information specific to the commercialization of Carbon Engineering’s DAC process.
This is a pivotal time in climate change progress where environmental, technological, and economic alignment is on the horizon, and it is empowering to be part of a company with such foundational aspirations made possible by its positive mission. Pursuing my passion for learning and going after what I wanted has paid off in substantial ways. I am grateful to contribute to the strong mindset of Carbon Engineering and look forward to what lays ahead for us as a company at the forefront of a critical new Direct Air Capture industry.