Parents have to be the example because if they’re not, kids aren’t going to do anything. I see people throw litter out of a car. What’s wrong with them? If somebody’s kid is watching their parents do that, they’re going to do the same thing. Be an example.
As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Don Owens.
Don Owens, CEO of HNO Green Fuels and author of revolutionary read, Burn Fuel Better, is a leading expert in Hydrogen related engine and energy technologies. He has dedicated the last decade to creating a customized hydrogen solution that is broadly applicable for everything that burns fuel, with the purpose being to reduce Black Carbon emissions, which is the main culprit accelerating climate change. He earned an engineering degree at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University), and began his career as a patent attorney for Western Electric and Bell Labs after attaining his law degree from Georgetown University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, with four siblings. I wasn’t one of these people who always knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. I mostly tinkered around with a lot of stuff, especially with taking things apart. By the time I got out of high school, I knew I was going to be an engineer of some sort. I always liked messing around with cars. Around the same time when I graduated high school, I re-built a 1955 Chevrolet, put a new engine and transmission in it, and drove all over Florida. Just about everything that could have possibly gone wrong with it did go wrong. But in my eyes, it was an opportunity for me to learn how to fix everything that went haywire.
Soon after, I went to Florida A&M and got involved in an engineering co-op program. I had the fortunate opportunity to work as an engineer-in-training at the Kennedy Space Center and go to school at the same time, albeit alternating semesters. However, at the time, Florida A&M only had a pre-engineering program, and I needed to find another school in order to finish my engineering studies. I was lucky to find a school in Flint, Michigan, called General Motors Institute (GMI), now known as Kettering University. They also had a co-op education program where you could go to school and work. It was great because I was able to work as an engineer for four years. But, by the time I finished, I discovered that I didn’t want to be an engineer.
Prior to my graduation from GMI, I ran into a friend who was going to law school while working as a patent-lawyer-in-training. At the time, Western Electric and Bell Labs were looking for people with engineering backgrounds for their patent program. Soon after hearing about this opportunity, I applied for the job at Western Electric in their patent department and I started going to school at Georgetown University Law School.
Patent attorneys talk to a lot of engineers to find out about their inventions so that they could put those inventions into words. When I finished law school, I was working as a patent attorney. It was a great income and I learned a lot. But again, by the time I finished, I realized that I didn’t want to be a patent attorney either. It has a very narrow focus and you have to think like a laser beam because what you’re describing is very detailed. Even though it is a fairly lucrative career, I just didn’t like it. I discovered that I’d much rather think like a search light than a laser beam. That is what led me to doing entrepreneurial activities that I’m still doing to this very day.
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
I had no a-ha moments. I didn’t have a clue I was going to be an environmental leader. A few years ago, I ran across a book that talked about using hydrogen to save money on gasoline. It wasn’t particularly environmental at the time, as much as it was about trying to figure out a way to save money on gas. It turned out that the book was a little bit inadequate, but it got me hooked on the idea. They described a number of things in the book that you could use to generate hydrogen gas that would be ultimately used to “enhance” the gasoline or diesel stored in the vehicle’s fuel tank. In the process, I discovered hydrogen’s effect on vehicle exhaust emissions. The fuel saving device that I developed did work, it did save gas, but it was very unpredictable on gasoline engines, which is what I found out when I went to an engine testing lab. My fuel saving device worked better on certain types of engines than others. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but different sized engines had different hydrogen requirements to be effective.
I was just about ready to fold up shop when a technician at the engine testing lab asked me if I wanted to test my device on diesel engines. It turned out that the fuel saving element wasn’t that great on diesel engines either, but at the end of one of the tests, the lab technician told me, “Oh, by the way, your device reduced your particulate matter emissions by almost 50%.” I asked, “What’s particulate matter?” I had never heard of it, didn’t have a clue what it was, he didn’t know either, other than it was something they regularly measured.
I looked it up and found out that it was a huge factor in terms of human health and the environment, and its existence was creating all kinds of problems for human beings. So, at that time, my focus was shifted to human health, because particulate matter can cause respiratory illnesses and premature deaths. The EPA was big on finding ways of reducing particulate matter. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the main component in particulate matter was black carbon, and that black carbon is 1,500 times worse than CO2 in terms of its warming impact on our environment. Everybody thinks about CO2 as being the main problem of climate change, but it turns out that black carbon is the thing that coats glaciers and ice sheets and causes them to melt. That is the major cause of climate change. Although people know about black carbon, they don’t know that we have a way to cut it in half. It’s just something I stumbled on. It wasn’t until I had to put together a talk about my technology that the connection between particulate matter and black carbon dawned on me.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
The beauty of our problem is that most young people are already there. When I was growing up, I wasn’t an environmentalist, per se. But I did hate littering. When the opportunity to recycle came around, I recycled. It’s just love for the planet, you know? Most young people love the planet, I believe. I don’t know if it was anything in particular that made me want to appreciate the planet any more than anyone else. Most young people recognize that they have to do something in order to insure a bright future for the planet.
When I accidentally discovered we can cut black carbon in half, it catapulted me to understanding why the message has to get out. Now, the message of black carbon being the enemy of the planet must go out to every single solitary human being that exists on this planet, young, old and everyone in between, because it will inspire them to try to figure out what they can do to mitigate it. If you don’t know who the enemy is, you can’t fight it. Every young person needs to know that black carbon is the enemy of the planet and the fact that it will continue to wreak havoc on our glaciers until we do something about it. That knowledge can make a difference.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
Our technology is directly aimed at reducing black carbon in thousands of applications. However, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Hydrogen burns at a rate that is exponentially faster than any other fuel, or any other thing that burns for that matter. It happens to increase the burn rate of any type of fuel in an internal combustion engine. We are developing applications to burn fuel better — in container ships, helicopters, trucks and cars, construction and mining equipment and in all types of ways that we burn fossil fuels.
We’re also teaming up with a company that makes injectors that can be retrofitted in diesel engines to atomize the fuel going into the combustion chamber and thus create less particulate matter. We are targeting black carbon, because indeed, it is the enemy of the planet.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
It all starts with education, period. Nobody will do anything until they know that there’s a reason to. Get my book. Find out about black carbon. Learn everything you can. This is really the only source you can go to find out about black carbon and see a solution for it. You can pick up a scientific journal and read about black carbon. But that knowledge without knowing that you can do something about it means nothing. That’s not enough. When you know that there’s something you can do, then it is a totally different picture. That’s why my book is the only source to find out what black carbon does and what we can do to slow it down and eventually stop it.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
- Parents have to be the example because if they’re not, kids aren’t going to do anything. I see people throw litter out of a car. What’s wrong with them? If somebody’s kid is watching their parents do that, they’re going to do the same thing. Be an example.
- Educate yourself and buy the book, Burn Fuel Better: From Helpless to Hopeful in the Race Against Climate Change. The effects of climate change are everywhere — for anyone to continue to deny it is detrimental to our planet as a whole.
- Stop blaming everybody. Everyone wants to blame someone else for our environmental problems. I have a chapter in the book that says specifically we can’t blame the fossil fuel companies for climate change, it’s on us, we’ve created the problem. When I was sitting in a hotel in Las Vegas and it was 116 degrees outside, while I was sitting in an air-conditioned restaurant, I was happy that somebody, somewhere was drilling oil. That hotel I was in needed to be cool. It didn’t need to be 116 degrees inside like it was outside.
- Electric vehicles are not the solution. People don’t think about the fact that you have to charge these vehicles with electricity made from burning fossil fuels. The manufacturing process itself isn’t green, unfortunately, the manufacturing process can’t be changed. You’re still having a huge impact on producing black carbon.
- Memorize this phrase, “black carbon is the enemy of the planet.” It’s like in the movies where the aliens come to attack Earth and everyone bands together to form an alliance to defeat the enemy even though they disagree on 100 million different things. Parents have to explain to their kids who the enemy is. This enemy is not going to leave in a few days, or a few months, or a few years, this enemy is constantly with us. All kinds of things are dependent on how we treat our environment. There are so many examples of what is being destroyed because of melting glaciers. Roses are red, violets are blue, black carbon is the enemy of the planet.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
When people know that businesses are trying to do the right things, people gravitate to them. I’m attracted to companies and businesses that have that in mind. They are thinking about more than their bottom line. Even though the bottom line is always going to be important, if they are able to incorporate things that are sustainable and make the planet a little better, then I am all about supporting them and I think most people are. It would be dumb to be explicitly anti-planet. But if you are pro-planet, then it can be profitable because if people like what you do, they will patronize your business.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Yes, there is! His name is Webb Beeman. Webb showed up in my life while I’ve been developing this technology over the past 12 years. He showed up about six years ago and during the last four years we have been actively figuring out a way to mass produce it. Figuring out a way to mass produce something that you have developed is always a challenge. Webb just so happens to have the ability to create anything that’s in my mind with his hands. He has been able to create what I had in my thoughts and turn it into something real. There have been a lot of people who have helped in different ways, but where we are in terms of technology and where the technology is going in the future could not have been if it wasn’t for Webb.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement has to be about education, because nobody knows about black carbon, except people in the scientific community. And even they don’t realize that there is a solution for it. When I talk to the average person on the street, nobody has heard about black carbon. That is the movement, the knowledge that black carbon is the enemy of the planet. Just so people will have it top of mind and know what it means. Confronting climate change can lead to truly helpless feelings. What can you do? You feel helpless, but there is something we can do. Melting ice is the reason for climate change, not just “a” reason, “THE REASON.” Period. People need to understand that this is the reason for climate change and that we now have something we can do about it. It’s still a monumental task, but there is finally something we can do.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
“Why wait until tomorrow for what you can do today?” I don’t know if I heard that somewhere or if I made it up. One thing is for certain, we can’t wait. And it just so happens that it applies to where we are today. We are truly running out of time. The beauty about what we have right now is that there is something we can do today. Again, I don’t know where I heard that somewhere or whether I made it up, but I’ve always lived by it. It’s very appropriate to today’s discussion about climate change. We can’t wait. We have to do something (this) right now.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
Burn Fuel Better Book: www.burnfuelbetter.com
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!