Quitting = optimism?
Is quitting an act of failure and pessimism…or belief in the future?
Only a small handful of the hundreds of moonshot ideas we have at X grow into sizable projects. At every step we ask, “Should we keep going, or should we try something else that has bigger, better potential?” Quitting one path — and putting what we learned on the shelf for now, or in the hands of someone better suited — is an optimistic act because it’s not about today’s feelings. It’s a strategy for getting to the world we want to see tomorrow.
We’re fighting our own brains, so this is never easy. As author and world poker champ Annie Duke told us recently, making rational decisions is almost impossible when we're invested in our work. It gets somewhat easier with practice and a culture that supports Xers who make these decisions — like the Foghorn team, who shuttered their moonshot to turn seawater into a carbon-neutral fuel. The trick is to tilt the emotional choice toward the belief there’s something better out there.
With the climate crisis hitting home, it’s tempting to cling to any idea showing a little bit of progress instead of scrapping it to go after a big — but uncertain — breakthrough. In this edition, two Xers working closely with X’s climate-focused projects share how they pursue radical innovation even as we’re overwhelmed by the suffering, scale, and complexity of the problem.
Lastly, join me in late October for a live conversation about how to create a more hopeful future for our planet with Australia’s premier deep tech incubator Cicada Innovations (info & RSVP here).
Courtney Hohne
Editor & Storyteller for Moonshots
Illustrations by Rune Fisker
SCT. 01–A Factory Stories 1: Optimism as a strategy
SCT. 01–B Factory Stories 2: From grief to purpose
SCT. 02 The What If? Files: Project Foghorn
SCT. 03 News from X
SCT. 04 Careers
Optimism as a strategy
In the words of Christiana Figueres, UN climate negotiator, “Optimism is the force that enables you to create a new reality. Optimism is not the result of achieving a task we have set for ourselves... Optimism is the necessary input to meeting a challenge.” X global policy lead Sarah Hunter explains what this means for all of us inventing, iterating on, and deploying new technologies to help with the climate crisis.
Read more
From grief to purpose
As both a physician and the lead of an early-stage investigation at X, Dr. Sarah Russell shares what she’s learned about staying hopeful and taking action even when the path is daunting and the odds are grim.
Read more
Project Foghorn
The reality of the innovation process is that most of X’s explorations don’t work out. Our archives are littered with ideas that lasted anywhere from a few hours to a few years. We want to share things we’ve killed in case they inspire someone else to come up with something even better.
2014 - 2016
The moonshot
What if we could use seawater to make carbon-neutral fuel?
Huge problem
Transportation is responsible for 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the majority of these are caused by burning fossil fuels. Cleaner alternative fuels would make a huge dent in the problem, but the complex and expensive processes to create them means they aren’t economically competitive with dirtier fuel. An affordable process for generating renewable, clean energy at the kind of scale and cost that could feasibly replace fossil fuels has yet to be fully realized.
Radical solution
Use an abundant source of carbon dioxide all around us: our ocean. The team explored whether they could combine hydrogen with carbon dioxide pulled from seawater to create a carbon-neutral "sea-fuel."
Breakthrough technology
The ocean naturally absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and over 90% of the inorganic carbon in seawater is in the chemical form of bicarbonate ions. The Foghorn team investigated an electrochemical technique that extracts CO2 gas from seawater by shifting the water’s pH level to make it more acidic, turning the bicarbonate ions into dissolved carbon dioxide gas that can then be pulled out of the seawater as relatively pure CO2 gas. That carbon dioxide gas could be combined with "green hydrogen" that’s produced separately via electrolysis using renewable energy resources. The CO2 from the seawater and the H2 from the electrolysis react with each other (using a catalyst and elevated temperatures), creating a hydrocarbon liquid fuel that could replace gasoline in cars, trucks, and other greenhouse-gas-emitting vehicles — without burning fossil fuels.
Cause of death
While the technical results were promising, the kill criteria ultimately boiled down to cost: could the team’s prices compete with prices at the pump? Unfortunately, the current and projected cost of both the carbon dioxide extraction process and renewable hydrogen production meant that the team couldn't find an economically viable way to create their sea-fuel. When the team wound down their project, they shared their research and analysis (here and here) so others could use what they learned in the search for carbon-neutral fuel.
You can read more about the decision to end Project Foghorn in this Harvard Business School case study. After team lead Kathy Hannun shut down Foghorn’s investigation, she moved on to explore geothermal heating with Project Dandelion, now an independent company named Dandelion Energy. Hear Kathy share her journey at X and beyond on the Found podcast.
Partnering to power a cleaner electric grid
X is working with countries all over the world as it builds its moonshot for the electric grid to accelerate the transition to clean energy. The team is developing tools to support Chile in reaching its ambitious decarbonization goals, accelerate renewable adoption in Indiana and Ohio, and help New Zealand harness its abundant natural resources, starting with Auckland’s electric grid.
Beaming broadband across the Congo River
Last year, Project Taara’s wireless optical communication links began connecting communities across Econet networks in Sub-Saharan Africa. Now, they’re working with subsidiary Liquid Intelligent Technologies to beam light-speed connectivity from Brazzaville to Kinshasa across the Congo River to close this "particularly stubborn connectivity gap."
Supporting stratospheric innovation with the Loon Collection
Loon’s last balloon is back on earth, but the team are sharing what they learned to keep their vision for stratospheric innovation aloft. The Loon Collection brings together almost a decade of data, lessons and insight to support the work of researchers, climate scientists and stratospheric explorers in this little-understood part of our world.
Calling all moonshot-takers!
We’re looking for inventors, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs who want to find radical solutions to the world’s most stubborn problems.
+ Moonshot Factory Storyteller for X
+ Senior Software Engineer, early-stage climate project
+ Machine Learning Lead Engineer, early-stage causal ML project
Explore careers at X
X is a moonshot factory. We’re an eclectic group of inventors and entrepreneurs who build and launch breakthrough technologies that aim to improve the lives of millions, even billions, of people and create large, sustainable businesses along the way. Our goal: 10x impact on the world’s most intractable problems, not just 10% improvement. X is a division of Google parent company Alphabet. Visit us at
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