Eco Innovator November 2011


Low-cost On Site Hydrogen Production

A prospective spinout company at the University of Wollongong has developed a technology that can use water to produce hydrogen onsite, and in a hugely cost effective and emissions effective way.

AquaHydrex believes the device has the potential to transform the energy sector.

"The AquaHydrex value proposition is on-site hydrogen manufacturing with a low-carbon footprint," said Chris Gilbey, director of Strategic Development for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) and the Intelligent Polymer Research Institute (IPRI) at the University.

"At a cost 50-90 per cent less than the current competition it offers both low fixed and variable costs for the customer," he said.

Mr Gilbey believes that making ‘water-splitting' commercially viable will mean a more sustainable future for industries worldwide, especially in a world where hydrogen is worth an estimated $50 billion a year.

The current Methane Steam Reforming (MSR) technology generates over 12 tonnes of CO2 for every one tonne of hydrogen, he says. AquaHydrex can reduce that to well under half and possibly more depending on the user's mode of operation. This would significantly reduce the CO2 footprint of any additional capacity the user may add to their plant through AquaHydrex.

The device is targeted at industries such as food, energy, chemicals and steel that depend on hydrogen gas as a chemical feedstock.

The petroleum industry, for example, depends on hydrogen to refine crude oil. "The more oil consumed, the more hydrogen needed," says Mr Gilbey. "Crude oil has very high sulphur content, which must be removed to meet strict standards that apply to sulphur levels in petrol – that requires hydrogen. We have looked very closely at markets and their dependencies. The petroleum refining business is one of the biggest consumers of hydrogen."

The technology was inspired by the desire to copy how nature separates hydrogen from water in plant photosynthesis. Professor Gerry Swiegers, who is the chief technology officer with AquaHydrex, began researching the idea about 12 years ago, and in 2008 he published a book on the idea called Mechanical Catalysis.

Other scientists from Monash University involved in various parts of the intellectual property initiated complementary research round the same time as professor Swiegers. The research team has included Doug MacFarlane, Bjorn Winther-Jensen and Leone Spiccia from Monash University and Gerry Swiegers, Gordon Wallace, and David Officer from Wollongong University.

Their years of research led to the development of a low-cost technology that uses synthetic catalysts to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The project has moved from the lab to a basic proof of concept prototype running at the University of Wollongong.

Mr Gilbey said the technology is probably 12-24 months from a field trial unit and 36 months from a releasable product.

The goal is to develop a product that is modular and thus highly flexible in terms of production. "The key production target is to deliver a 100 kilogram per day output. From the customer research that we have undertaken to date, an output of this level would deliver a solution at the lower end of a typical captive consumption production plant. That would enable us to sell into big chemical companies as an add on to their Methane Steam Reforming plants that are already producing."

The business model is to utilize the technology's low capital expenditure (CAPEX) by not selling units but instead leasing and installing these and billing the client based on the kilograms of hydrogen delivered. The charge would be at a discount to their current cost.
The payback on a unit would be 12-18 months if the operator is running optimally. This would benefit the operator by removing a significant CAPEX figure and reducing their operating expenditure (OPEX) too.

AquaHydrex anticipates needing to raise initial capital of $1.5 to $2 million, and a Series A round of a further $4 million a year or so later.

The AquaHydrex innovation was one of five finalists in the University of Queensland Business School's 10th annual Enterprize Awards, which put it in the running to win $100,000. In October the finalists met with venture capitalists and angel investors to decide the winner.

AquaHydrex was also shortlisted for The Australian Clean Technologies Ideas Competition, with the winner announced last month.






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