Start-up aims to make zero-emission hydrogen a commercial reality
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Hydrogen has been proclaimed as the fuel of the future for much of the past five decades. Detractors have even suggested its time may never come, as it remains expensive to produce and tricky to transport.
Yet interest and investment in low-carbon hydrogen has surged in the past few years as governments strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet ambitious net zero emission targets. And the energy crisis following the conflict in Ukraine has only accelerated efforts to bring hydrogen into the mainstream.
HiiROC, a start-up in Hull, northern England, with just 60 employees, believes it could be part of the solution. Set up in 2019 by Tim Davies, Simon Morris and Ate Wiekamp, the company has developed technology that, it says, will produce low-cost, zero-emission hydrogen from micro to industrial scale. The gas is produced at the point of use, thereby avoiding the cost and practical problems of storage and distribution.
The two main methods currently used to produce hydrogen involve either reacting methane with steam at high temperatures — so-called steam methane reforming — or electrolysing water. Both, however, will continue to face challenges until the industry matures, say analysts; the former process produces a large amount of carbon dioxide while the latter requires substantial energy.
“If you look at hydrogen becoming a fuel to help the planet to reach net zero, then you need another way of making it,” says Davies, HiiROC’s chief executive.
The company says its technology — thermal plasma electrolysis — can convert biomethane, flare gas or natural gas into clean hydrogen at a cost that is comparable to steam methane reforming but without the associated emissions. It is also cheaper than water electrolysis.
Put simply, HiiROC uses a very strong electric field inside a plasma torch to rip apart the methane molecules to create hydrogen and a solid byproduct called carbon black. The process results in something Davies describes as “emerald” hydrogen — which, he says, differs from “turquoise” hydrogen, which is created through the pyrolysis (heating in an inert atmosphere) of methane or other hydrocarbons. HiiROC’s process, says Davies, is “electrically driven”.
Making carbon black — rather than carbon dioxide and then storing the gas — also makes the process distinctive. The byproduct can be added to everyday materials, such as rubber for tyres, or can be used to improve soil quality. Using methane, for every 1kg of hydrogen produced, HiiROC makes 3kg of carbon black.
Davies plays down concerns that the process is based on a fossil fuel. The concept, he says, is for the technology to “hopefully be a global solution to a global problem”.
Hydrocarbons “are good fuels”, he adds. “They contain a huge amount of energy. The problem is the carbon dioxide that is produced. If we can find a way of decarbonising hydrocarbons, then hydrocarbons can carry on being valuable fuels and we use the hydrogen that comes off.”
Investment in low-carbon hydrogen has surged in recent years, with a focus on energy security and net zero commitments driving demand across different sectors. Over the past year alone, nine governments have adopted a hydrogen strategy, according to the International Energy Agency. Some 26 governments have also committed to adopt hydrogen as a clean energy source in their energy systems, the IEA adds.
However a recent report on behalf of 45 world leaders concluded that annual investments up to $130bn would be needed in hydrogen by 2030 to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change, and pointed out that investment currently stands at less than $1bn a year.
Other significant challenges remain, too, including how to scale up production — especially of so-called green hydrogen, which is created from the electrolysis of water using renewable energy — and blue hydrogen, which has its carbon dioxide byproduct captured. “We are already seeing a huge amount of momentum building in both blue and green hydrogen, and we will see costs continue to fall,” says Murray Douglas, head of hydrogen research at Wood Mackenzie.
The main hurdle for more nascent types of hydrogen, such as turquoise, will be to prove their “commercial scale”, Douglas says.
Investors, however, have started to take notice and, despite this year’s market volatility, have poured millions of dollars into technology start-ups.
One of HiiROC’s closest competitors is Nebraska-based Monolith, which also uses plasma-torch technology. The US company has attracted several big-name investors in recent months, including BlackRock, which helped lead a $300mn-plus funding round. The company also received approval for a $1bn loan from the US Department of Energy to scale up production this year.
Initially, HiiROC was self-funded while it proved its technology. The company then raised £2.5mn in a funding round in 2020, which was enough to build the first prototype units to show that the technology worked at the next level up from the research laboratory, says Davies. HiiROC’s biggest fundraising to date, £28mn, took place in 2021 and attracted a range of investors, including energy company Centrica, cement maker Cemex, manufacturing group Melrose Industries and South Korean conglomerate Hyundai. German energy companies Wintershall Dea and VNG were among earlier backers.
Davies will not disclose exact ownership details after the funding rounds but says no one owns more than 20 per cent of the business, including the founders individually. Every employee is a shareholder.
The money raised by HiiROC in 2021 will be used to launch a series of pilot projects with its backers next year. One is a facility in Germany with Wintershall Dea and VNG that will have a nominal capacity of 400kg of hydrogen per day, equivalent to an annual energy output of almost 5GWh. The companies are already in talks with potential customers for the hydrogen, and about a possible location in eastern Germany.
Cemex, on the other hand, is looking at the benefits of using carbon black as an additive to concrete. The group also hopes its partnership will help it cut methane emissions by increasing its hydrogen injection capacity in its cement kilns, allowing it to increase the use of alternative fuels.
HiiROC, which also has some non-investor clients lined up, plans to lease out its units in exchange for a utilisation fee. Davies believes commercialisation of the company’s technology could happen as soon as 2024. The company, he adds, aims to show that its technology is versatile and can be used “anywhere”.
Given the conflict in Ukraine and the surge in natural gas prices, especially in Europe, Davies says HiiROC’s European and UK clients are “much more focused on the fact that we can use waste gas or flare gas” to produce hydrogen but without carbon dioxide emissions.
The war has undoubtedly galvanised interest in alternative sources of energy, but even hydrogen executives concede that the fuel is not the answer to every industry’s carbon footprint problem. Some analysts believe hydrogen should generally be limited to intensive energy users while renewables power less energy-hungry industries.
“At the moment, there is a bit of a bubble around hydrogen, but it definitely has a role to play and there will be a range of hydrogen technologies required for different applications along the way,” says one analyst.
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