He worked in several on-campus labs, collecting air-quality data and helping develop an efficient process to convert carbon dioxide into formic acid. Later, during the pandemic, he conducted experiments using carbon dioxide as a tracer gas for COVID-19 to assess the safety of in-person classes.

These experiences “gave me an exciting sense of agency to explore the bounds of existing technology,” says Kristian Gubsch (’20 Chem. Eng.), cofounder and vice president of feedstock development at Mars Materials.

Aaron Fitzgerald, Kristian Gubsch and Jane Zhang
Kristian Gubsch (center) with cofounder Aaron Fitzgerald and Breakthrough Fellow Jane Zhang (Courtesy Aaron Fitzgerald/Twitter)

It also underscored something he already knew.

“I want to be part of the solution,” he says. “I want to scale up technologies that can remove waste carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I want to reimagine and revolutionize what our relationship is with industry.”

Mars Materials, a Houston, Texas–based start-up that rechartered as a public benefit corporation in 2021, is on a mission to reverse the world’s industrial waste carbon footprint⁠—and it’s garnered the attention of Bill Gates.

Gubsch and cofounder and CEO Aaron Fitzgerald were recently named Innovator Fellows in the second cohort of Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Fellows program, which supports top early-stage clean-tech innovations with huge impact potential. The two-year fellowship provides technology development funds, mentorship, expert advice, and more.

“The Breakthrough fellowship is enabling us to expand our engineering team and complete improvements to our process,” Gubsch says. “We’re also siting a lab to house our pilot unit.”

The pilot nitrilation unit to produce acrylonitrile is scheduled to be operational this fall. A primary building block in carbon fiber composites, acrylonitrile offers myriad, diverse commercial uses⁠—from cars to clothing and carpets. Nitrilation units use bio-based feedstocks, such as corn-based ethanol, as well as captured carbon dioxide as inputs. They are cheaper to build and produce fewer toxic by-products than traditional approaches.

“We see a future where steel is replaced by carbon fiber and atmospheric carbon dioxide is repurposed for good,” Gubsch says. “The long-term goal is to offer many different products where we are able to produce valuable materials from waste carbon dioxide.”

An Honors College graduate who grew up near Tacoma, Gubsch has been passionate about climate change since high school. By the time he arrived in Pullman, “I was laser-focused on finding opportunities to work in climate and carbon dioxide mitigation. I ended up getting involved with anything and everything related to climate that I could: the WSU Solar Decathlon, the Environmental Sustainability Alliance, undergraduate research. I was just trying to learn as much as possible.”

He was also a top scholar, named 2018’s Most Outstanding Sophomore in Chemical Engineering and, in 2020, Most Outstanding Senior in Chemical Engineering, Most Outstanding Senior in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, and a WSU Top Ten Senior. He won the President’s Award for Leadership and Virginia E. Thomas Scholarship at WSU.

Two men in lab coats and safety glasses in a lab
Kristian Gubsch worked in professor Hongfei Lin’s carbon conversion chemical engineering lab as a student. (Courtesy The Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering)

He also won three prestigious national scholarships: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship in 2018 and, in 2019, the Marshall Scholarship and Barry Goldwater Scholarship.

WSU’s first Hollings recipient, Gubsch worked in the Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, to investigate how metabolites in coral change in response to ocean acidification. The Goldwater recognized the carbon dioxide utilization research he completed on campus and helped pay for his undergraduate studies.

The Marshall⁠—Gubsch was WSU’s first recipient of this scholarship too⁠—funded two one-year master’s degrees in England, one in 2021 in environmental and energy engineering from the University of Sheffield and another in 2022 in innovation, entrepreneurship, and management from the Imperial College Business School.

During graduate school, Gubsch worked at Mars Materials. “I helped create a framework to select our technology, develop our roadmap for our first phase of technology development, and supported my cofounder on investor diligence calls as we worked to raise our pre-seed round,” he explains.

Today, he’s involved with commercializing National Renewable Energy Laboratory technology with help from the Breakthrough Energy Fellows. The program awarded Gubsch and his cofounder an undisclosed amount that includes a stipend for living expenses as well as funding for further developing the technology and building a team.

“We need as many people as possible working in the climate space,” Gubsch says. “We’re on the wrong side of a ticking clock. We need everyone on board to have a shot at mitigating the shocking damage that’s already occurring globally.”