Q&A: Stanford grad student discusses Forbes 30 Under 30, sustainability

Feb. 21, 2021, 8:04 p.m.

Stanford mechanical engineering graduate student Nicolas Pinkowski M.S. ’17 was named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 2021 list, along with Jay Schwalbe Ph.D. ’20, for his work in creating Nitricity, a sustainable fertilizer startup that could facilitate the decarbonization of the chemical industry. 

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: Could you explain what Nitricity does?

Nicolas Pinkowski [NP]: Nitricity is a company that does one thing, and that is make fertilizer. But we do so in a way that’s different from the way it’s been done before. Fertilizer today is made using hydrocarbons, like coal or natural gas, in factories known as Haber-Bosch factories, and there’s a tremendous amount of CO2. That’s hazardous and expensive to transport around the world. What we are doing is shifting the focus to the farmers now. We put down some solar on farms and underneath that solar is hardware that turns air, water and sunshine into fertilizer right where it’s needed. We’re working in California’s Central Valley today, as it’s a perfect market to start out in. We hope to expand beyond there in the coming years. 

TSD: Conversations surrounding sustainability don’t really ever revolve around fertilizer, so what drew you and your co-founders to pursue providing sustainable fertilizer for farmers?

NP: A lot of the conversation around clean energy is associated purely with making grid electricity, but in reality, the far majority of energy consumption in the United States is not in turning on lights in people’s homes, but in making hard goods and chemical goods. I once heard that 20% of energy is used for grid electricity and 20% is used in the body. There’s a big focus on decarbonizing the grid and that’s great, but we have to start focusing on bigger industries and chemical industries — specifically fertilizer itself. The production of fertilizer, through the Haber-Bosch process, historically kicked off the entire field of chemical process engineering. If you could decarbonize fertilizer production, it would lead to the decarbonization of many other chemicals and their production processes. 

TSD: When did the idea for Nitricity come to be?

NP: About three years ago, as a part of a class at Stanford. A couple of colleagues of mine started looking into decarbonizing the production of ammonia, which is a feedstock for all fertilizers today. This is where it started, as a part of a class where we started looking at different technologies that could do this. I got linked up with this whole group at Stanford and the Nitrcity co-founders from there.

TSD: How has it been starting a company in the Stanford environment? 

NP: Stanford is very much a focal point for a lot of people in the industry. In the context of a class where we’re just learning about the market, and with your Stanford email address, you can email and get in touch with people who own Haber-Bosch factories. We saw some great support from professors as a part of a class. Stanford is one of many universities that Nitricity won some pitch competitions at — we won a pitch competition at MIT, Caltech, Stanford and one through Lawrence Berkeley National Lab called Cyclotron Road. These universities, these communities and their clean energy focus have been really instrumental in helping us grow and get on our feet.

TSD: I read that Nitricity has been working with a farm in Fresno. How has that been? Have there been any changes in the process, after implementing the product in a farm?

NP: First off, there’s been a huge difference from working out this problem on a whiteboard in a laboratory and working out this problem on a farm. It is much harder. When we first installed this, it was raining, muddy and cold. We had some late nights, all our clothes were dirty and now we’re always freezing cold installing solar when there wasn’t much sun. As winter went by and we came into summer, when it was 110 degrees, there was dust everywhere. I think I still have dust on my shoes from the farm. The days are torturous working on this, not to mention the black widows and adventures. Nothing works the first time. It does really well and then it gets rained on; then it doesn’t work very well. It’s a much different experience, but it’s also a much better experience. You learn a lot more about what it actually takes to get a product to the market on farms. You talk more to farmers. You just learn a lot more about agriculture, and where your product fits into the overall market.

TSD: Are there plans to work with another farm in the near future?

NP: The system that’s on the first farm is going to be there for a while — solar lasts forever, so that’s going to be making fertilizer for years to come. Now we’re doing tomatoes, broccoli, and we’ll see how that works in parallel where we are on another farm. It’s a big farm: 9,000 acre farm, we’re on a 25 acre lot, which is a lot larger, probably for tomatoes and maybe green peppers. We’ll be applying a lower pH or more acidic form of fertilizer. We’ll be measuring the same thing. But right now the stakes are higher because now it’s in a commercial setting. Everything’s bigger. Your mistakes are more costly. You have to hit deadlines and provide value to a farmer, because it can impact their bottom line.

TSD: How has it been being recognized by the Forbes 30 Under 30 list?

NP: That was crazy. Jay [Schwalbe] and I are super excited to be recognized by Forbes; it’s really cool and you’re invited to this Slack channel where you get to meet other folks who are doing really interesting stuff. We knew we were nominated by three folks. One was the Stanford Precourt interview from the Pretoria Institute at the Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy. Second was a colleague at Stanford, in a sense, who graduated and is CEO of a local energy company. The third was energy-focused and an investor. We were essentially told that we were being nominated by two folks, and they suggested we ask another. 

TSD: Where do you see Nitricity in five years?

NP: I hope we’re on tens of thousands of acres in California. We might be on farms outside the state, and other places like the South and Nebraska. I can imagine all these fertilizer systems, all these farms producing and injecting nitrogen using air, water and solar. We can see them operating on the dashboard. We’re seeing more and more fertilizer assets. We can tally and keep track of how many pounds of nitrogen we make, and the corresponding pounds of carbon dioxide emissions that we mitigate. That’s our figure of merit: the pounds of nitrogen we make, and corresponding pounds of Co2 we mitigate emissions from. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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