ChatGPT & DALL-E generated panoramic image of a Caribbean underwater view with a coral reef being printed by a large 3d printer

From Bones To Reefs: Pioneering Coral Conservation

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Recently I hosted Professor Amy Wagoner Johnson, a US materials scientist who is leading a global research project on coral reef restoration on my podcast Redefining Energy – Tech. In the theme of providing transcripts of presentations I’m giving in various places for people who prefer the written word, this is the lightly edited discussion.

Michael Barnard: Hi, welcome back to Redefining Energy Tech. I’m your host, Michael Barnard. My guest today is Professor Amy Wagoner Johnson, materials scientist. She has a day job or three with the landlocked University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, which is 2 hours south of Chicago and 750 miles from the nearest ocean. Yet she’s leading a global initiative to restore coral reefs based on her work 3D-printing human bone scaffolding and tissues. And it’s a story that includes machine learning and wave flumes. Welcome, Amy.

Prof. Amy Wagoner Johnson: Hello. Thank you for having me.

Michael Barnard (MB): I’ve been very excited to have this conversation, I always like to start with who the guest is and how they arrived in the weird spaces they’ve ended up in, because from Urbana Champaign to Curacao is an interesting journey. Tell us the backstory for yourself.

Prof. Amy Wagoner Johnson (AWG): Sure. I am a material scientist and in a mechanical engineering department at the landlocked University of Illinois. When I finished my PhD, I kind of transitioned from traditional topics in material science to being interested in bone and bone repair using bone scaffolds. So this is kind of in the area of tissue engineering, if you have heard that term before. So we were spending a lot of time doing manufacturing and making the scaffolds, designing microstructures of scaffolds to release drugs to interact with bone in ways that would enhance bone regeneration. I did that for some time. I was collaborating with a colleague here who works in manufacturing, and he was helping with the 3D-printing, and he’s from Jamaica and knows some scientists there. We started talking about, could we 3D-print for coral? And so we went to a conference.

We sort of got ourselves invited to go to a coral conference to talk about 3D-printing of bone scaffolds. And when I got there and started talking to the coral scientists, I realized that jumping to 3D-printing was kind of a. It was kind of getting ahead of ourselves because they really didn’t know what materials would work for coral restoration or for. I also learned about, you know, how do coral reproduce? And I learned that actually there are eggs and sperm that come together, and they make a little larva that swims around, and they didn’t know anything about how the larva interacts with the environment and what kinds of things affect those larvae. And so I decided that I couldn’t start with just 3D-printing.

We had to take a step back further and look at can we design materials and surfaces that would encourage those larvae that are swimming around looking for a place to land and change into coral polyps? Could we design materials that would work better for that? And so I thought of taking some concepts and some ideas that we had used in our bone tissue engineering work and trying to apply those to coral regeneration and restoration. And so that was kind of the idea. And I was able to secure some funding for that, which is kind of a different story as well.

MB: 2018 $825,000 grant, I believe it was.

AWG: We’ve had two NSF awards. When I first had this idea, which, you know, is a completely new idea, I called the National Science Foundation and I talked to, I think, twelve different program managers, and I said, I have this idea. What do you think? And every one of them said, it’s not in my area. It’s not in my area. I can’t fund that. And so I thought, huh, okay. So I started sort of just dabbling in the lab to try to think about structures and things that we could make. And then about a year later, they came out with a call for convergence research projects. I called up a mentor of mine who is very wise, and I said, what do you think they mean about this?

Like, what do you think they really mean and what are they really looking for? He encouraged me to just think super big, super huge. We wrote a white paper where we were talking about coral engineering, meaning bringing engineering, many dimensions of engineering, into coral restoration. We proposed something much grander, but we proposed a seed project to look at materials and surfaces and how they might help coral larval settlement. We got that award, and it was really exciting. It was one of NSF’s first convergence research awards. Now they’re really trying to promote this modality of research, of team science.

We started the project, and I was able to connect with this group at Carmabi Lab in Curacao, led by Kristen Marhaver, who’s a very well known coral scientist and was one of the pioneers in collecting the larvae and being able to keep them alive for projects like this. We wrote this white paper together along with a few other people. Like I said, it was funded. That allowed us to get started.

MB: So this kind of gives a snapshot of how you got here with the coral stuff. But let’s step backwards. Why is coral important?

AWG: Coral is incredibly important at a number of length scales. I tend to think about length scales as a nerdy engineer. Coral is a massive structure that is sort of close to shore, but not necessarily immediately at shore. And it can serve to protect the shore. You can imagine hurricanes coming and big giant waves coming, and that can kind of break the waves and protect the shore. That’s one sort of large length scale benefit of having coral reefs. But we can also zoom in and we can look at the types of animals that live on the coral reef. The whole food chain is there, basically, right, from big fish to little tiny fish, including fish that we eat. If you have a healthy reef, you have all kinds of animals there living together.

And if we have an unhealthy reef, then we lose all those fish, which can be our food. Right? So many of the fish that we eat come from the coral reefs. There are people who fish the fish at the coral reef, and they are using that fishing as income. Right? That’s their job. They’re fishermen. Coral reefs are also places where tourists go to see the beautiful reef. It’s also a source of income for people who live on islands near coral reefs. So I think there’s a number out there. It’s something like a billion or dollars a year or something huge. I think it’s maybe even bigger than that. I don’t remember the number off the top of my head, but so it provides, just to summarize, it provides shoreline protection.

It provides food for people, it provides income for people and other things, I’m sure, as well.

MB: The shoreline protection and the massive biodiversity improvements are what leap to mind for me because I’m a climate nerd. I deal with poverty in a different thread related to economic development. But as someone who took a sailing trip on a catamaran around the Caribbean a few years ago and snorkeled everywhere, one of the things that was obvious to me was everywhere there was coral reef, there was life. Where there wasn’t coral, there was just dead sand. I mean, there might have been microorganisms. There were microorganisms and microprons in there, but not very much. They’re fundamental. Another part of my background is spending a lot of time looking at the implications offshore construction of wind farms for local biodiversity. There’s impact during construction, but after that, wildlife explodes under the surface around anything we put in the waters.

This becomes a huge problem for maritime shipping because you put anything in the water and minerals and life stick to it and then they accrue and they grow. That’s great for things that are static. It’s great for reefs, it’s terrible for ships, which is an entirely separate thread. Shoreline protection becomes important because we’re now in a place like with the reduction, 40% loss of mangroves india, for example, we have a situation where the increase in cyclones, tropical cyclones, is impacting those. Reefs play a vital role there and they’re a threatened. So tell us about the threats. Why are we trying to rebuild coral? What’s happening to them? What’s impacting them?

AWG: So, of course, climate change is playing a big role. Right? That is increasing temperatures, acidification of the ocean, but there are also other factors that play a role, such as development at the shoreline and the runoff of fertilizer or other pollutants that are going into the water. These kind of sicken the coral. Then there’s also overfishing. These areas are teeming with life and they’re a big, massive part of the food chain. If you remove a link in that food chain by fishing out all of types of fish, then you can kind of disrupt that balance. There are lots of strategies that people use that just really take out massive amounts of fish at one time. That overfishing is also a problem.

I think, as you are aware, the climate change pieces, I think, can be a bit trickier to tackle because it’s a global issue. And some things like overfishing might be a more local issue that could be managed differently.

MB: We talked about the local economy. One of the things that you end up with is lovely coral knickknacks to buy in tourist shops that were chipped from live coral reefs and cleaned.

AWG: Yes.

MB: I can’t begrudge deeply impoverished people from doing what they need to keep food on their children’s plates, but it is a problem in many parts of the world, certainly. I remember there was a proposal in Australia a few years ago by an organization that was attempting to extract coal in China and in Australia and ship it to India. They’re claiming it was climate positive because it was a higher grade of coal than was available in India, so it was lower CO2 emissions. What they want to do is blast a big hole through the Great Barrier Reef for the ships. Not good.

A politician there, you know, one of the climate change-denying politicians on a press junket. She dove on the Great Barrier Reef, broke off a chunk illegally and brought it to the surface to say it was fine. It was mind boggling.

There are two aspects I’d like to lean into because it’s more the climate solution side of things. There is the oceanic warming, which is causing one set of problems, but there’s the oceanic acidification, which is causing a different set of problems. Can you elaborate more on the oceanic warming and the implications for coral polyps in that space?

AWG: Coral have a symbiotic relationship with some algae, and those algae kind of live in the gut of the coral polyps. Actually they are what provide the color that we see in coral. If the temperature gets too high and it’s different for different species, it depends on other conditions and how long. But those algae that are really important for the polyp survival, and I can say something about that in a minute, but the coral basically spit those out, they eject those algae. That’s what makes the coral look white, this term bleached. Once that happens, the coral basically starves and all the tissue kind of sloughs off, which makes the area prime for bringing in other kinds of algae. And that’s what you see.

That’s kind of more brown algae, really not pretty part that comes after coral bleaching. These algae are important because they’re photosynthetic, for one thing. They create sugars that provide the energy for the coral polyps, and the coral polyps provide CO2 for the photosynthesis from these algae. So it’s really a nice relationship that they have.

MB: Yeah, it’s actually symbiotic. It’s symbiosis stacked or cubed, because algae are symbiotic. They have characteristics of flora and characteristics of fauna. They’re quite complex organisms compared to yeasts by themselves. Then they’re inside the gut in a symbiotic relationship with the polyps. But they require certain conditions. And that, you know, part of that is why corals occur in shallower waters, because sunlight is providing some of the energy. There’s also various types of fish that actually consume the coral polyps as part of their nutrient stuff.

AWG: Yeah, so there are some fish that munch on the coral and some kind of scrape surfaces to kind of remove the coral. And they end up exposing some of the skeleton underneath, which actually then can create a new surface for other, sometimes good, sometimes bad organisms to come and land there.

MB: But corals as organisms, the reefs aren’t static. They grow, is one of the things. Now, this is kind of one of the things I’ve been poking at in my brain, which is to say speculating without actually doing the research. How long does it take for a coral reef to form to be an actually significant scale?

AWG: A long time. For a large reef like the Great Barrier Reef, that could be 100,000 years. I mean, just really for us as humans, we’re on this earth for a short time. It’s kind of unimaginable how long it takes. If you again, like, zoom in to individual corals, branched corals can grow a few centimeters a year. Other more stony corals grow, you know, a couple centimeters a year. So on the scale of a reef, that’s pretty slow. And you can imagine that it can take centuries or more to grow the size of some of the reefs that we see. I think that can seem kind of hopeless in some sense, but I think that there are things that we can do that can sort of simulate a reef and maintain sort of some organisms there.

But also we have to approach it from other sides where we are still trying to grow new coral, even though it grows very slowly.

MB: There are two kinds of things going on as I think about it. The first is the water is getting deeper a little bit, which is reducing the sunlight that reaches coral, which would suggest that it wants to move and adapt by growing closer to shore. And that’s the pressure in that regard. The evolution would go in that direction. But the water, especially surface waters, are getting much warmer and the warmth is what’s killing them, which would push them, from an adaptation perspective, away from shore. I’m not sure how that’s going to square in terms of this, because it’s an interesting evolution, dual evolutionary pressure. Maybe the species will bifurcate, but that’s an evolutionary time, not at the rate of climate change that we’re pushing upon the thing right now.

Previous conversations I’ve had about corals, people have said they grow, they’ll just adapt, they’ll move. And I say to them, not at this pace of change. I keep having to repeat this to people. The rate of change of climate change is so extreme compared to most natural cycles. We’re in a position where potentially we could see five degrees Celsius of warming. The last time we saw five degrees Celsius of warming, it took from about 25,000 BCE to about 20,000 BCE, and all the glaciers melted. We are in an interglacial age in the current ice age. And that was because of that degree of warming, but that was 5000 years and we’re doing it 250 times faster. When people talk about adaptation of species, when I talk to plant biologists and stuff, they end up getting isolated in pockets. We see these divergent pressures for evolutionary adaptation. It’s quite remarkable.

There’s a question mark that occurs to me. Is a living coral reef more structurally resilient against storm significant wave action than a bleached coral reef, a dead coral reef, do they become things which fall apart in the absence of polyps?

AWG: My intuition says yes. I haven’t explored that directly, but my intuition says yes. You have all this living coverage of the skeleton which kind of protects the skeleton and in some sense kind of reinforces that if all that goes away, then you’re exposing this brittle material underneath that can be smashed around by these giant waves. So I think yes, and this will.

MB: You talked about the fish that scraped off the polyps, enabling exposing the raw skeleton. I think you said new polyps will find that raw skeleton and grow again, creating that more resilient skin. Because a coral polyp is a little tiny shell, as I understand it. It’s a shellfish of sorts, but it’s a fixed in place shellfish, a little tiny one. Same chemical chemistry of shell calcium carbonates, I believe, and a little living thing inside, which is doing some water filtration, doing some stuff. But that’s a more flexible, resilient top coat to the skeleton. It’s like our skin over the muscles and bones. Without the skin, the biggest organ in the human body, we wouldn’t be able to survive and we would crumble much more quickly. So that’s an interesting one.

The calcium carbonate piece was also interesting because you mentioned oceanic acidification, which is one of the threads I was going to pull out. That’s certainly a thread that I’ve been looking at a lot recently as I’ve been looking at both the problem space and what to do about it, but also the implications for carbon drawdown through the ocean and approaches that people have for oceanic geoengineering, which I looked at first five years ago and my brain melted because I didn’t have the chemistry. It took five years to kind of get to the point now where I can actually have useful conversations about it and get it mostly right.

And so the oceanic acidification, why don’t we describe that process a bit and to articulate what it is? Because there’s a lot of confusion about what that really means. It means, are you going to dip your toe in it and have your skin bleached off your stuff? No, that’s not what it is. So share what oceanic acidification really means.

AWG: I’m certainly not an expert in this, and so I can give you sort of a very high level view of this, but so the ocean pulls in carbon dioxide, and that changes the pH of the ocean, so acidification, becoming more acidic. That makes it harder for corals to build their calcium carbonate skeletons. You can think of the coral skeletons of, like, antacid. Like tums or something. The acidic environment around that is like your stomach. Your stomach kind of dissolves the calcium carbonate, and then it neutralizes the acid. That neutralization is fine, but that really can degrade the coral skeletons. It can make it difficult for them to build not just coral, but other animals that have calcium carbonate in their structures.

That can create a weak skeleton, and then it’s more likely to be damaged. I’m certainly not a chemist, so I can’t speak to all the details of the chemistry of that process, but I can sort of speak to how that affects the material of the coral, which is the skeleton.

MB: I’ll provide a little bit of nerd context in terms of the pathway, some of the chemical pathway problems. So carbon dioxide comes in and interacts with water to create carbonic acid, which interacts with carbonate ions, which are free floating. So you have two carbon atoms in the combination of the CO2 and the carbonate ions. They combine to create bicarbonate ions, which is a durable, long lasting sequestration of CO2. About 95% of all the carbon dioxide that enters the ocean is captured in carbonate bicarbonate ions. And the problem there is one carbon comes in from the atmosphere. One carbon atom comes from the carbonate ions, locking those away. And the carbonate ions are what shellfish and coral polyps use to create their own calcium carbonate shells. We’re seeing a reduction in calcium carbonate ions free floating, which are fundamental building blocks.

We see that pressure, the acidification is more of a de-alkalization, a slight de-alkalization, but that reduces carbon dioxide uptake as well. We have not a saturation point, but a diminishment. There are other factors involved, like the hotter a place is, which is to say, where coral reefs grow, the more inhibited carbon dioxide uptake is. There are other things about ocean upwellings in the mid Pacific that I frankly don’t understand yet, but there’s a whole bunch of interesting chemical processes that occur through this cycle. Here’s actually a nerdy thing I discovered recently. I was auditing a course, one of the Great Lectures on Audible about chemistry. PH stands for parts of hydrogen. Had no idea that was what it stood for, hydrogen being, you know, such a key component to acids.

Back to that word, evolved. Nobody would design a system this way. If you ever studied biology and looked at the Krebs cycle, anybody who actually tries to look at the Krebs cycle and say that’s how the human body processes energy, they’d say, there’s no intelligent designer here. This is really messy. The corals have evolved for a stable 20,000-year reign of deglaciation and a relatively stable set of sea level conditions during that period in a relatively level, stable set of temperatures. And now we’re radically changing those in a very short order. The value propositions of biodiversity, to our discussion, when the skin is removed, the skeleton crumbles and that subsea structure disappears.

So all the ecosystem that depends upon that subsea structure also disappears, and all the shoreline protection disappears. With increased cyclonic activity due to hotter oceans, that means the waves pounding on shore hit harder and go farther uphill. Storm surge increases, stuff like that. It’s just not good.

AWG: So it’s not a pretty picture.

MB: This is why we need to help coral.

AWG: Yes.

MB: As you figured out pretty quickly, 3D printing coral by itself wasn’t the answer. There was more stuff going on. So tell us more about where your brains went subsequently, because as I was looking at your paper on strontium and magnesium and, you know, lime and stuff like that, and there’s just a whole bunch of interesting stuff going on there in terms of what coral polyps like and structure and chemistry.

AWG: I have to admit, you know, we still don’t fully understand it. But I can talk a little bit about kind of where we think we’re going and kind of what we’re currently doing. And I think that just to say we’re taking one approach, and I think there need to be many approaches because there cannot be a single solution. So I’ll just make sure that’s clear. We don’t have all the answers. If you 3D-print a big structure and it’s the wrong material. Wrong? Meaning it changes the chemistry in a negative way locally, or, you know, it releases chemicals that are poisonous to the surrounding area, that’s bad, right? Or if coral won’t, or the larvae won’t land on it and survive, that’s bad.

As I said before, we kind of took a step back and wanted to look at how materials could improve larval settlement and growth, that those polyps can become mature and reproduce like their parents did. We’re looking at calcium carbonate based materials, and we’re looking at those because, of course, the skeleton is made of that, and they’re also relatively easy to make. You can use like things like lime mortar, right? Those are kind of the class of materials. When we first started, we went to Home Depot and bought a bag of lime mortar and mixed it up and tried to see what would happen. Now we have a little bit more sophisticated materials using what’s called natural hydraulic lime, which is kind of a composite material.

You can make that base material like lime mortar or natural hydraulic lime, but that’s not enough because those can fall apart when you put them in the ocean. Some of the things that we add are sort of to keep them structurally stable. But we’re also adding other materials that will allow us to release ions that we think could be useful for the larvae, for attracting the larvae, helping them settle and helping them build their skeletons. We are looking at strontium and magnesium because those are in the ocean. They can be found in the skeleton. And when people have tanks of coral, they have to regulate those carefully to ensure the health of that. Of the little miniature ecosystem inside that tank.

We add magnesium carbonate, strontium carbonate, and those can kind of slowly release the ions and change the local chemistry or ion content near that substrate. We’re also working on incorporating other molecules in the substrate. It’s like a drug release idea. Going back to the bone scaffolds. We incorporated drugs. We designed the bone scaffold and the porosity in the bone scaffold to release drugs. Here we’re looking at, can we release other molecules into the surrounding that would influence the larval settlement and growth and the health of the system there. We don’t actually have a great idea of what those molecules should be.

Even so, one of the things that we’re looking at incorporating are different parts of what’s called, I can’t even say it, CCA, crustose coralline algae. And this is an algae that actually also has a skeleton. And you see it everywhere that you see reefs. It has a skeleton. Yeah, it has some mineral in it, and it’s a flat algae, so it encrusts structures. And really, you see it everywhere where you see coral. If you have a tank where you have coral, you can see it growing on rocks, you can see it growing on the glass. If you’re at a coral reef and you can see some bright pink splotches everywhere, that’s this algae. Somehow there’s a relationship between the coral and this algae, having this algae nearby.

This algae is known to release chemicals and also have chemicals in its tissue that affect the coral, the surrounding coral. People who culture larvae go into the ocean where the coral are spawning, they collect the gametes, they come to the lab. The gametes are a little embryo, and that becomes a larva. These larvae are attracted by this CCA and different components of the CCA. When you put a rock of CCA in with a little dish of swimming larvae, that sends some signal to the larvae that it should settle down and metamorphose into a polyp baby coral.

One of our ideas, and we’re not the only people doing this, but we want to try to figure out what chemicals in that CCA is releasing or that is within that tissue, the CCA tissue affecting the larvae and the larval settlement and metamorphosis.

MB: Yeah. So what I’m hearing is there’s multiple conditions for larvae to settle. The free swimming larvae have to find a suitable material to settle on. Obviously, the calcium carbonate skeleton, if exposed, is suitable, but it’s preferably with trace elements of strontium and magnesium for aspects of their biology. It has to be the right temperature to survive. It has to be close enough to the surface to get sunlight, and it has to have trace elements in the ecosystem which indicate that triggers something within the larvae’s life cycle that say, hey, it’s time to settle down and build a house. There are multiple things going on. I presume that there’s a turbulence factor there as well.

We’ve talked a bit about the chemistry. We’ve talked a bit about the conditions. We’ve talked a bit about the biology. Let’s talk flume tanks or flumes. I think this would be a good time to segue.

AWG: Starting from out on the reef when the coral spawn, and mind you, that some species spawn once per year, so you have one chance to get those gametes and that change into larvae. Right. But obviously, it’s in the ocean, so there’s wave action, and that wave action can carry the larvae to different places and spread them out. The larvae can swim. They have literal cilia that allow them to swim, but they’re also typically about the size of a grain of rice or smaller. Wave action is going to carry them more than they can swim. A colleague here at Illinois is a fluid mechanician. His name is Gabriel Juarez.

We wanted to understand how surface features on the substrate affect the ability of the larvae to settle. In order to try to capture that, we built a flume. A flume is like a long tank. The cross section is maybe six inches by six inches square. It was easier to build the square. We lined the bottom with our substrates, and our substrates had some features on them. To make those features, we actually used silicone candy trays from big online stores that I won’t name. We made these little waffle substrates. Literally, they were little waffles, but that provided some features on the scale of, you know, a couple millimeters or so for the fluid to interact with.

We put these substrates in the flume, and we used a motor to kind of push the water back and forth, and then we put the larvae in, and then we watched how they settled. We looked at where they settled and on the substrate. Did they settle on a ridge? Did they settle in a little pocket? Gabe did some simulations and some more experiments here in Illinois, where he used particles, and he tracked particle motion, those particles simulating the larvae. He looked at how the fluid mechanics changes near those structures and how that affects the larval settlement. And so what he found is that when you have these surface features, it kind of changes the flow field there.

If the larvae get close enough, then they can slow their swimming speed enough that they can actually swim down and settle in these pockets. You can sort of translate that to the reef. The reef is not a smooth structure. It has lots of features on it of different scales. You could imagine how this would be important to understand that, you know, if we get a larva close to the coral, how does that fluid interaction with the coral affect the ability of the larva to settle?

MB: Believe it or not, there’s a connection to Bhopal, India, and the massive chemical disaster. A couple of years ago, I spent some time similar to the time I’m spending with you with Dr. Jane Melia, whose PhD was in fluid dynamics. She got her PhD pretty much right after Bhopal, India. Everybody in fluid dynamics was going, okay, none of our models predicted anything that happened there. Her PhD thesis and all of her PhD work was entirely on figuring out how to model what actually happened there, because places where they expected gas dispersion from the classical model found gas concentration. Much of the fluid dynamics software that we have now and the algorithms around that and the ability to do this stuff grew out of that problem because everyone went, oh, my God, all of our risk management models for chemical disasters, for human safety are completely wrong. This got some attention.

Computational fluid dynamics now is used in enormous number of places. I spent a couple of years as an advisor to, believe it or not, an organization which does organic chemistry for using pretty much the same carbonate bicarbonate process, CO2 to bicarbonate process, to store energy in a redox flow battery. And computational fluid dynamics is used for all the flow plates and all the flow patterns to the cells. Similarly, computational fluid dynamics is used heavily in wind energy to model the behavior of blades in those streams. It’s used on designs of buildings to determine wind loads and implications there, etcetera. It’s a fascinating space, and just the sheer computational ability we have now to do amazing stuff with that. Computational fluid dynamics at a very granular scale.

It’s still imperfect, because the real world is always more fractal than anything we put in a model, but it’s just a fascinating, singular thread. So Bhopal enables some of the research that you’re doing. So there’s silver linings from stuff.

AWG: Yeah, yeah, very cool. Yeah. And I think, you know, fluid mechanics. And you’re saying fluid dynamics, fluid mechanics, you know, similar areas, but it’s also important at very small scales. Right. And we don’t always think about how that is important to the smaller scale organisms. And there’s a lot of work in how fish swim and how these larvae move about and use their cilia to get around. There’s a lot of work at all length scales related to fluid mechanics. It’s really quite interesting, and I think there are several length scales for coral reefs that fluid mechanics becomes quite important.

MB: Yeah, I’m terrible with names. A few years ago, ten years ago now, I think I spent some time with a MacArthur genius award winner, Jon something [Dabiri, and my apologies to him for forgetting his name], and he does biomimicry. He’d been studying the equations of fish, equations that other people had developed around fish schooling and how the vortex interactions from the fins created some of the schooling behavior. That’s like starlings, a murmuration of starlings. He had some great insights out of that related to subsurface propulsion systems for submarines and, you know, stuff related to marine engines, industry. I interacted with him around wind energy, where he found that counter-rotating vertical axis wind turbines could actually create the conditions for greater overall wind share for wind generation.

AWG: Interesting.

MB: Yeah, it was very interesting. Unfortunately, the rest of his thesis around it was flawed, and he and I had a long debate about that, and I still think he’s an incredibly bright guy. As I said at the beginning of the discussion, Jon, you’re far too intelligent for me to actually convince you of anything because you’ll be able to talk yourself around any objection I come up with. And he did. It was a brilliant conversation. You’ve had them yourself, I’m sure. But his stuff, his wind generation stuff is completely unused globally. The stuff he was, you know, because it didn’t make sense in context of the rest of the space. But brilliant insight, brilliant finding.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast ( , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

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