By Bogdan Avramuta, Rethink Research
H2U Technologies, a California based start-up, claims to be on the verge of revolutionizing the Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) electrolyzer game with its AI driven Catalyst Discovery Engine (CDE).
The tool, comprised of an AI component and hardware, is the work of a team of scientists from the California Institute of Technology. The institute has been granted $122 million back in 2011 in order to develop the CDE. Fast forward 10 years and in 2021 H2U has taken shape and is now using the technology under an exclusive licensing deal, with the core team that created the CDE among its employees.
A vast number of companies are spending their resources on finding a replacement for the expensive PGM (Platinum Group of Metals) catalyst and numerous research papers seem to come up with ideas that can solve this issue, even if just on paper, but no one is ready yet to fully divulge how for commercial reasons.
In describing the CDE, CEO Mark McGough used a rather compelling analogy. In the same way that NASA can use the Hubble Telescope to look at stars rather than using binoculars, he claims that H2U has an unfair advantage over its competitors. By aiming the CDE at the most promising array of chemical elements, the team can analyse different mixtures of elements subjected to different types of chemical processes that are deposited in a slurry format on an electrically conductive substrate. This high capability throughput process of testing different samples constitutes the core advantage that H2U seem to possess.
The well-known dependence of PEM electrolyzers on the PGM has been the biggest reason for which green hydrogen believers have been looking at alternatives. PGM are not only expensive, but they are also currently produced in low volumes.
McGough also argues that H2U will be able to offer a capex (capital expenditure) light electrolyzer for this novel, low-cost, non-iridium design to businesses in the green hydrogen production industry, which paired with intermittent renewables minimizes the LCOH (Levelized Cost of Hydrogen) for green hydrogen production.
The total capacity of electrolysis is expected to reach around 3 terawatts by 2050 and thus the availability of an affordable and efficient electrolyzer design composed of easily accessible and abundant materials will play a key role in enabling the ever-growing hydrogen industry. Sectors like aviation, transportation, steel manufacturing and many more will guarantee an increase in demand for green hydrogen, so the pressure is mounting on the supply side to deliver.
After raising $11 million through a Series A funding round earlier this year, H2U partnered up with De Nora, an Italian designer and manufacturer of electrodes, through a Joint Development Agreement in order to test a non-PGM catalyst developed by the American company. According to a press release, the tests ran by De Nora returned positive results which marks a significant milestone in H2U’s catalyst discovery process.
The goalpost will keep moving though, claims McGough. It’s not about discovering one solution that will reduce the cost of PEM electrolyzers and then move on, it’s about constantly improving the efficiency of the system. Thus, the partnership with De Nora seems like the first step towards commercialization.
Later this year, H2U will take part in a Series B funding round that will aim to facilitate their plans for 2023 when the firm will look to bring forward a proof-of-concept product for which companies can register interest in and make reservations for.
The proof of concept will help H2U gather feedback, test results and data that will allow its engineers to improve and finalize the design ahead of its final form as a commercial product.
In order to meet demand by 2050, electrolysis will have to take a couple of steps forward and even though H2U appears to be ready to tackle the long-term uphill battle against global warming with innovative design methods, overall cost is still the hindering disadvantage that electrolysis needs to fix.