An ex-NASA rover engineer tells us why 'technology agnosticism' will save the planet

And why Elon Musk is wrong in saying hydrogen is 'dumb'.
Chris Young
The nuGen truck (left) and First Mode's powertrain (right).First Mode

First Mode’s Chris Voorhees almost became a musician — having been raised by a pair of musicians — before changing tack and going on to spend 15 years working for NASA and then founding Seattle-based creative engineering firm First Mode.

That formative period still bears a great influence over his engineering work today. "I've always looked at engineering as very similar to how I look at music," Voorhees tells IE in an interview via video call.

"It's the sum of the parts that is harmonious and I look at the design of new systems in much the same way. You're just doing it with a lot of different people from a lot of different disciplines. But for me, that's an orchestra right?"

Today, First Mode has just announced a merger between itself and Anglo American after a successful partnership between the two in building the world's largest zero-emission haul truck. It's part of an orchestral collaboration that saw First Mode fit a massive 2MW hydrogen fuel cell and lithium-ion battery powerplant into Anglo American's 490-ton nuGen mining truck. And it's one of many projects First Mode has undertaken on its mission to decarbonize industry.

Space engineering principles to save the planet by

Voorhees learned his trade from the pioneering first generation of solar system exploration scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He joined NASA as an intern in the mid-90s just as many of them were coming to the end of their illustrious careers. By the early 2000s, he was a lead mechanical engineer on the Mars Curiosity rover program

Two of Voorhees' mentors, Bill Lehmann and Frank Locatell, were instrumental in some of the most iconic robotic spacecraft missions in history, including Voyager, Galileo, and Cassini. Though Voorhees idolized many of his superiors, he eventually realized that, when they started "they didn't know what they were doing either." The most valuable lesson he took from them, he says, was to rely on "good first principles" and to "always search for the simplest solution to a problem."

Today, though First Mode does provide its engineering expertise for space technologies — its developing a goniometer for NASA — the company is mainly concerned with urgent climate change solutions, such as its hydrogen powertrain technology. "It's hard for me to actually work on anything else now," Voorhees says, "given how time is of the essence."

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The world’s four-phase reaction to climate change

Part of First Mode's mission, arguably, is to change the public perception of the technologies that can lead to decarbonization as well as the urgency with which they are required. 

"I think we've been watching the world, and industry, progress across four phases," Voorhees explains. "The first phase is that people see the [clean energy] transition as a fool’s errand. It's a folly and it's something that’s just not in the cards, either for their industry or their particular viewpoint. The second phase is that it's necessary, but that it will happen someday and at some point in the future. The third phase is where people see it as inevitable. And that's when regulation, technology, and political and social pressure start catching up."

"Finally, for phase four," Voorhees continues, "it's an opportunity. Not only is it inevitable, and not only is it the right thing to do for society, it’s also the right thing to do for my business, or for my government."

Voorhees believes that more and more people and organizations are reaching that phase four mindset. "Depending who you are, you're likely sat somewhere between two and four right now," he says. "There is very little argument now about whether it’s necessary. But we want more people to see it as an opportunity to be at the forefront of transition in their industry. And I think more and more people will go to phase four over the next five years or so."

Hydrogen versus electric is 'asking the wrong question'

Key to First Mode's success so far, Voorhees says, is the concept of "technology agnosticism", which flies in the face of companies such as Tesla, whose CEO Elon Musk is an absolutist when it comes to the debate over hydrogen and electric vehicles — Musk recently called the idea of hydrogen cars "staggeringly dumb".

Voorhees, unsurprisingly, feels very differently. Hydrogen versus electric vehicles is "the wrong argument," he claims. "It reminds me of the solar versus wind argument that happened with renewable energy in the late 90s and early 2000s. Like, which one of these is the right one to win? It turns out both were really good. And I feel the same way here. I look at them as complementary technologies. And we use both."

"Our [nuGen] system is really a hybrid," Voorhees continues. "We're taking and replacing the diesel element with the next best, most potent fuel source, which is hydrogen, and augmenting that with the power output, and the ability to be able to store while operating with battery." The result is a zero-emissions truck capable of carrying 290 tons of mining materials. And it will keep 700 cars' worth of carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere, according to Anglo American.

An ex-NASA rover engineer tells us why 'technology agnosticism' will save the planet
Anglo American's hydrogen-fueled nuGen hybrid mining truck. It's the largest zero-emission truck in the world. Source: FIRST MODE

That philosophy of not discounting any technology permeates the work First Mode does, and also the work the company takes on. Case in point: Mining, with its poor environmental track record, will paradoxically be a crucial component in the fight against climate change. According to the World Economic Forum, the transition to clean energy, required to avert the worst effects of climate change, will need as much as 3 billion tons of metals for the development of batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, and other machinery. 

First Mode's Voorhees highlights this point to IE. Though mining is a "pretty dirty industry with a pretty checkered past that has had a lot of problems and has done a lot of environmental damage in history, it is also vital to society," he explains.

"And so from a standpoint of decarbonization, you need to start at the source. If you cannot get material in a sustainable way and in a zero-emission fashion, then to some extent it's fruit from a poison tree," Voorhees says, referring to electric vehicles that require materials that are mined unethically or in a manner that is damaging to the environment.

The value of space exploration also came up in our conversation. As we see ourselves in an exciting era for spaceflight, many people argue we should be focusing that effort and money on saving the planet. Voorhees, who's uniquely positioned to answer this question, having worked extensively in space engineering and climate change solutions, once again, says it's not the question we should be asking.

"I see that almost as back to solar versus wind again," he says. "The two pursuits are complementary. And I think it's sometimes missed that we understand much about the world on which we live because of our own exploration of it from space, which we do every day." Instead of asking whether we should be in space in the first place, we should be asking what we’re doing there, and why it brings value to people down here on Earth.

Editor’s Note: This is a part of our special INTERESTING ENGINEERS ISSUE, where IE explores the greatest minds using ideas on the small scale to reshape the world on the big scale.

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