If we’re serious about establishing a viable clean hydrogen economy, innovations from entrepreneurs, start-ups, scale-ups and other small ventures are vital contributors, says Dr Heather Johnstone, showcasing six of the most promising.
The enormous attention on clean hydrogen shows no signs of diminishing as the world continues to transition to a lowcarbon future. Although it’s not a ‘silver bullet’ that will enable us to achieve all our decarbonisation goals, it is expected to be a major low-carbon fuel and energy carrier in the near future, particularly in hard-to-abate areas, such as industrial processes and heavy transportation.
Much of that attention is being fuelled by the strong political focus globally. This is especially true in Europe, with the publication last year of the EU Hydrogen Strategy and more recently the Fit for 55 Package, which many hope will provide the necessary legislative boost for the greater deployment and uptake of clean hydrogen by industry, energy and transportation.
What’s critical for clean hydrogen, whether ‘blue’ or ‘green’, to reach its full potential in supporting our low-carbon transition is achieving scale and reducing costs right along the whole value chain, from production to transport to storage to utilization. This is where innovation and small ventures, such as start-ups and scale-ups are playing a vital role.
Last year, StartUs Insights created a Global StartUp Heat Map that showed the distribution of over 600 viable hydrogenfocused start-ups and scale-ups. And because it’s such a fast-moving area in all likelihood that number is now even higher.
Looking across the whole value chain, highlighted below are six start-ups, whose tech solutions seek to address common challenges facing clean hydrogen production, transport, storage and utilization.
Addressing the cost of production
The fact is, currently it’s significantly more expensive to produce green hydrogen (from renewable-based electricity) than grey hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas and is routinely used as an industrial feedstock.
However, one Israeli start-up, founded in 2019, is seeking to challenge that. H2Pro has developed what it describes as a revolutionary method for splitting water. Although similar to conventional electrolysis, that’s where the similarity ends because the hydrogen and oxygen are generated separately at different phases – an electrochemical phase and a thermally-activated chemical phase.
The result is that their device is expected to reach 95% efficiency, operate at higher pressure (50 bar or higher) and importantly cost significantly less than a conventional electrolyser.
Coupled with anticipated reductions in the cost of renewable energy, H2Pro believes its technology will enable $1/kg green hydrogen production at scale, making it the world’s lowest-cost production and helping to accelerate green hydrogen’s mainstream adoption.
Last year, H2Pro won the Scale-up Category in Shell’s New Energy Challenge, and is now working with Shell Ventures to jointly develop an all-important pilot. While in March of this year, it successfully closed a $22 million Series A2 funding round led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Supercritical Solutions is developing a novel high pressure, ultra-efficient electrolyser solution. By using heat and pressure, its proprietary design allows it to exploit the benefits of supercritical water and deliver gases at over 200 bar of pressure, but without the expense or challenges of hydrogen compressors. Supercritical Solutions says this means it can deliver the lowest cost pressurized green hydrogen.
Shortlisted for this year’s New Energy Challenge, the start-up will pitch for the opportunity to win €100,000 ($117, 880) towards a proof of concept within the Shell GameChanger programme. In June, it also received over £320,000 ($443,253) from InnovateUK, which will support the development and testing of a fully operational multi-cell module.
Making transportation & storage safer
Handling and transporting hydrogen is challenging because of its high flammability, high diffusivity and very low density as a gas. However, German start-up, Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies GmbH, believes the hydrogen storage and transport system that they’ve developed, based on Liquid Organic Hydrogen Carriers, could be a game-changer.
Using a toluene-based oil as the carrier material, which has low flammability, its LOHC technology is said to be ideal for the safe storage and transportation of largequantity hydrogen. Furthermore, the oil itself can be re-used for another load.
Hydrogenious is a finalist in the ‘Rising Star’ category of the 2021 German Founders Award.
According to Dr Daniel Teichmann, Founder and CEO, “Renowned studies such as that of the Hydrogen Council, have found our proprietary LOHC technology to be one of the most promising solutions for the storage and transport of hydrogen”.
Returning to the UK, H2GO Power, which was founded in 2014, has developed a patentpending reactor that stores hydrogen gas. Employing nanotechnology to create a flexible sponge, it traps the hydrogen atoms in its pores, enabling the safe storage of large quantities in a small space.
The reactor has a proprietary design and has been manufactured, tested and certified to operate between 1-10 bar and below 100°C and meets current pressure vessel standards.
For utility-scale storage, H2GO Power has developed a stationary ‘plug and play’ unit, which houses multiple reactors and is the size of a standard shipping container. It is designed to take in renewable energy, store it as hydrogen for a long duration and release power on demand. AI algorithms provide cost-efficient management and optimal storage/response operations.
“We chose to do our part at H2GO Power by working on developing and deploying zeroemission technologies that could capture renewable energy, store it for long durations at scale for low-cost and then release it back to the user when the demand for power increases”, says Dr Enass Abo-Hamed, CEO and Co-founder.
Targeting new consumer markets
Developing new consumer markets and therefore demand is an essential part of creating a viable clean hydrogen economy, and the following two innovators’ solutions are aiming to do just that.
Focusing on a diverse range of decentralised end-use sectors – such as marine, telecommunications, construction, hospitals and off-grid homes – Estonia’s PowerUP Energy Technologies, which was founded in 2016, has developed a series of fuel cell-based electric generators that it says is a sustainable and viable alternative to both diesel generators and batteries.
Its generators, which are fuelled by pure hydrogen gas, are based on proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. PowerUP has developed its own highly active bio-based and CO2-derived nanocatalyst and is in the process of developing corrosion proof and lightweight fuel cell stacks that can operate in extremely corrosive environments.
In March, PowerUP received a €150,000 ($176,848) grant from Estonia’s Environmental Investment Center to develop two 12 kW protoypes that will be tested and validated by Mushi Bio Power in Namibia and the National Radio and Pakistan’s Telecommunication Corporation in early 2023.
It is also one of the 15 finalists in this year’s SET Award.
While, KEYOU GmbH, which is based in the German city of Munich, is aiming its solution, at least initially, at the commercial vehicle sector.
Via a technological approach of combining efficient injection, exhaust gas recirculation, turbocharging and a patented hydrogen catalytic converter, KEYOU has demonstrated how a conventional diesel engine can be transformed into an emission-free hydrogen one, and ultimately make the internal combustion engine green.
Importantly, its hydrogen technology is not specific to a particular engine or manufacturer, and can be used in both new and existing vehicles.
KEYOU, which was founded in 2015, was on the top 100 international start-ups list of the 2020 SET Award.
All six start-ups demonstrate the ingenuity and agility that small ventures possess when seeking to overcome challenges, many of which can be long-standing. So if we’re serious about creating a clean hydrogen economy that is truly sustainable, industry incumbents, investors and governments all need to be encouraging, engaging with and supporting more of these innovators.
About the author
Dr Heather Johnstone is Content Director of Initiate! in Europe, a global programme that seeks to empower the next-gen energy tech and talent.