A common refrain in the world of climate solutions is that there are no silver bullets, only silver buckshot. But if any climate technology comes close to a whole silver bullet, it’s the green hydrogen electrolyzer.
Hydrogen is fuel that emits virtually zero greenhouse gas emissions when it is burned. To date, roughly 99% of hydrogen fuel is produced by steam reforming methane (known as ‘gray’ hydrogen), but it can also be created by transforming water into hydrogen and oxygen through a device known as an electrolyzer. The process is energy intensive, but when powered with renewables, the result is a near-zero emissions fuel that can displace methane emissions that are on the rise.
Another unique advantage that distinguishes green hydrogen from other climate solutions is its versatility. Hydrogen offers a low-carbon solution for many industries, such as fertilizer production and aviation fuel. It’s also a reliable energy source to power heavy industries like glass and steel manufacturing that account for as much as 11% of the world’s carbon emissions.
That was part of what drew electrolyzer startup Ecolectro’s founders Dr. Kristina Hugar and Dr. Gabriel Rodriguez-Calero to the technology when they were first thinking about how to put the engineering skills they learned at Cornell toward making a positive impact.
“When we were thinking about what type of technologies will have this massive impact in the way we do things, I think very quickly hydrogen surfaced as a key pillar that touches everything from energy and fuels to things like fertilizers and energy storage,” says Dr. Rodriguez-Calero.
Hugar started working on green hydrogen while pursuing her PhD at Cornell in 2010 “before it was cool” but is encouraged that green hydrogen has emerged as a favorite solution for governments and industries around the world in recent years. It is poised to play a pivotal role in the development of a low-carbon economy thanks to the latest developments in climate policy.
Incentives in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act promise to make green hydrogen more economically competitive with gray hydrogen. In Europe, the H2Med pipeline project will create a green hydrogen corridor stretching from Portugal to Germany. The clean fuel is also at the core of decarbonization plans of many of the world’s largest manufacturers.
Hugar says her concern for the climate started when she read an article on plastic pollution in the ocean that kept her up at night. But she quickly realized coming up with a solution would require a combination of her science skills and a sober recognition of how difficult it can be to make meaningful change.
“I wanted to know if there is a way to address climate problems before they start, while not implicating industrialization as negative. Let's figure out how to adapt to a modern society in a more creative, holistic way,” Hugar says.
“We need transportation, we need cars, we need planes, we need ships to transport goods, we're never going to not need that. So how do we do this in a really different way that doesn’t make people feel bad about wanting all those great things?”
But as with every technology, green hydrogen has its drawbacks. Alkaline electrolyzers are currently the most commercialized models globally, but they tend to be large, unwieldy hardware setups that make them expensive and hard to deploy in remote areas that are sometimes most favorable for green hydrogen production. Those costs relative to methane-based gray hydrogen have so far made green hydrogen an uncompetitive option.
The predominant PEM systems also depend on the mining of rare metals such as iridium and platinum, which has its own environmental impacts. Not to mention the reliance of these technologies on fluorinated polymers that are manufactured with and degrade into forever chemicals.
That’s where Ecolectro’s new electrolyzer design comes in. Based in the leafy backdrop of Ithaca, New York, Hugar and Rodriguez-Calero’s team are building a new type of electrolyzer that uses a unique membrane technology to address several of those economic and supply chain challenges associated with green electrolysis today.
“The membrane is very important because it helps solve challenges that were in that liquid alkaline system. So when you switch to a polymer-based system, you reduce the footprint of the system,” Hugar says.
Ecolectro has developed a system that is cheaper, smaller and more environmentally friendly than the majority of existing electrolyzers.
By refining their unique membrane process, Ecolectro’s units are a more compact electrolyzer that reduces the hydrogen stack cost by 78% while depending on a more secure supply chain, cutting out the price swings that continue to plague climate solutions dependent on more exotic materials.
While green hydrogen is showing promise in a number of different applications, Ecolectro’s founders say they are focused on working on use cases where they can deploy their technology the fastest to bring down emissions as quickly as possible.
“The most important thing for us is to target the industries that, by switching to a hydrogen, we will see the most bang for your buck in terms of reduced emissions,” Rodriguez-Calero says.
“Which of these industries can we really affect change much more quickly on greenhouse gas emissions? Because ultimately, that’s what we, and climate tech generally, are trying to solve.”
Ecolectro is currently hiring for several Scientist and Engineering roles, and they anticipate expanding their team even further over the course of the year.
Hugar and Rodriguez-Calero emphasize that while skills are important for a prospective teammate, they value a diversity of backgrounds and points of view to help tackle complicated problems that are critical to providing a revolutionary climate solution.
For the Ecolectro founders, a passion for addressing climate change is just as important as experience working with green hydrogen.
“There's so many intangibles that every type of background brings. And it's something that we put at the bottom of all our job descriptions, even if you don't think you fit all these criteria, you should still apply,” Rodriguez-Calero says.
“We have the opportunity to disrupt a massive industry. And by disrupting it, we'll do a lot of good. For anyone who this vision resonates with we'd be excited to have a conversation with them.”
Hugar agrees, and says that an important attribute facet of the culture at Ecolectro is“ intention toward creating space for folks to show up authentically as themselves, and complement our team with their own unique value.”
“I would encourage anyone else to just try to hold onto what makes you, you, and follow your passions and find a place that recognizes your value, because you have it. It's there. Own it.”
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