Backstories: Noble Thermodynamics

Cyclotron Road’s fellows are creating the future of clean energy, advanced manufacturing, and electronics. In this new series, Backstories, we are tracing the decisions and inflection points that landed them here.

Would you turn down a well-paying job in order to pursue an advanced degree, even if you were a bit ambivalent about remaining in academia? Miguel Sierra Aznar did. He’s now a Cyclotron Road fellow and being an entrepreneur, as anyone quickly gathers from talking to him, is clearly his calling.

Miguel co-founded Noble Thermodynamics in 2015 to commercialize the argon power cycle, a new engine design that delivers emission-free electricity from natural gas or renewable hydrogen at an efficiency well above current systems. The technology also makes captured carbon dioxide emissions available for reuse. Noble Thermodynamics’ target market is the utility sector; it wants to retrofit the natural-gas-powered engines used at power plants with its cheaper, more efficient power cycle. But the path Miguel took to Cyclotron Road has been full of surprises and his long-term goals go well beyond the electrical power system — all the way to influencing the way entrepreneurs are supported in his native Spain.

Miguel, you’ve told me that pursuing combustion from an engineering point of view is, basically, a fool’s errand. You said “whatever you learn is not going to give you better engineering it’s going to give you more pages in the encyclopedia.” So then, why are you building a startup that is essentially built on combustion?
First, the underlying assumption is that we’ll always rely on fossil fuels. And that’s not true. We can move away from fossil fuels and I think some countries will sooner than others and I think it’s what we should do. That said, my idea is: let’s be practical. We have all those decades of research into combustion, so why not transform that research and use it for something else? Look for approaches we never tried before because we were too lazy or conventional fuel systems were too cheap to move away from. We’ve invested so much in combustion — why throw that away?

But combustion is a small section of what we’re doing. We’re looking for a better way to usher in the transition [off fossil fuels]. We see ourselves as a transition technology, a bridge, and ultimately, we can transform into a storage system, competing with fuel cells.

In 2013, Miguel led this team of researchers from UC Berkeley and Tula Technology on a project funded by the California Energy Commissions to retrofit Tula’s efficient engine to burn natural gas, further reducing GHG emissions and boosting fuel economy for large SUV and pickup trucks.

But the path that landed you here to took an unexpected turn… Talk about your decision to pursue a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley.
I received my masters from the Technical University of Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, majoring in sustainable energy technologies, in 2014. The Netherlands was at the forefront of renewables at that time and I learned there was money going into windmills and I should learn about it. I went to conferences on my own, I was really self-driven.

But within the sustainable energy program I found myself continually drawn to combustion. Unlike many may think, combustion is is really fascinating—it combines thermodynamics, fluid dynamics and chemistry…to me, it’s the perfect mix! And that is my link to Berkeley — one of engineering professors from Eindhoven has a connection here and that landed me at Cal, where I did my master’s thesis.

But taking this path wasn’t obvious. I had spent so long as a student, and I had no money and needed a job just like anyone else. So, before deciding to pursue my doctorate I actually applied to work at a major oil company in The Netherlands. Then this opportunity to do a Ph.D. came through.

Miguel loves making paella for his American friends.

So, it was either a Ph.D. or a well-paying job?
Yes, and I never thought I would choose the former — my thought was, I’m not a Ph.D. person. But my friends said: You know how many people would kill to enter Berkeley for a Ph.D.? So, the thought of maybe regretting it in the future [if I didn’t do it] made me take it.

When you’re working past midnight on a proposal or something related to Noble Thermodynamics, do you ever regret turning down the industry job?Even if you said ‘Miguel, tomorrow that company will hire you and pay you handsomely,’ I would probably still say no because it’s not an opportunity — or rather, because that opportunity is already granted. It’s not a new opportunity. I would rather go after a new challenge — that is what drives me to keep working really hard. It doesn’t always make for a good work-life balance, but I really enjoy it and it brings me value. I don’t think that industry job would be nearly as fulfilling.

Lots of people know as much—or more—about combustion as I do, but what entrepreneurship provides me is the ability to say, I’m not the best at it but I am convinced my method is best, and I am going to do it this way. If I was employed by someone else I would be limited by the guidance or methodology of that company. I like being an entrepreneur because I’m a perfectionist — so I think my way is the right way to do it! But my biggest challenge has been to not micromanage people. If you think someone is worse than you at a given thing, you’ll never trust their work. It took me a while to figure out why you want to hire people who are smarter than you.

Miguel during his undergraduate studies at University in Groningen, Netherlands.

Miguel, you left your native Spain when you were 20. But you’ve told me you’d like to return some day with the goal of making more opportunities for scientists and entrepreneurs there. Can you explain that?Spain has a lot to offer. People are very friendly and willing to work hard. If you want to do business in Spain you have to connect on the personal level and build alliances between companies. So, when you’re in a moment of crisis you can say ok this company is going to continue to supply me because I know that CEO. But the professional support system of the country… it’s just not properly designed. Right now, in Spain, you are more likely to get research grants based on your network than on your merit, and that makes it so hard to advance research or try to commercialize it.

It’s sad. And it’s a problem related to Spain’s lack of an entrepreneur-friendly ecosystem, which is probably driven by our culture. And if you want to change culture you have to change it at a high level. I’m not saying I want to be the president or anything, but I’d like to be an advisor for industry or research. I want to change the mentality in Spain, in terms of where the money goes and what the rubric is for success or failure.