Eco Innovator November 2011
Low-cost On Site Hydrogen
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
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
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
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.